Tirelessly photographing his surroundings since the 1960s, Daido Moriyama has established himself as one of Japan’s most gifted artists for his portraits of diverse subjects, including working-class people, theater performers and both urban and natural landscapes. This retrospective was a rare opportunity to see many of Moriyama’s works together with some previously unseen photographs included among the 200 displayed.
He is best known for his work from 1968 to 1972: gritty black-and-white shots of the Japanese urban landscape, most notably his raw portrayals of street life in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. During this time, Moriyama worked with a short-lived magazine, Provoke, and was instrumental in giving the publication its artistic and philosophical manifesto. Responding to the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, Moriyama created blurred, high-contrast and grainy images of filthy gutters, bleak concrete expressways and wretched stray cats and dogs, capturing the rough edge of Japan’s economic miracle.
At times, this relentless documentarian presents a deliberately skewed version of reality. In one photograph, Smash-up, from his series, “Accident” (1969), people gather around the wreckage of a two-car collision. A sheen in the upper left quarter of the photograph reveals that the scene was in fact shot from a road-safety campaign poster. Both the technique of reproduction and the subject matter are uncannily reminiscent of the Car Crash paintings in Andy Warhol’s earlier “Death and Disaster” series (1962-63), but whereas Warhol was questioning the use of mass-produced imagery in his art, Moriyama embraces its verisimilitude. A quote of his on the wall read: “To me, reality and images on posters or TV are all equivalents because each of them exists externally. So if a woman on a poster looks sexier than a real one, I photograph it.”
During the past few years, Moriyama’s wanderlust has taken him further afield to Shanghai and Buenos Aires. In the “Buenos Aires” series (2004-05), aside from a few shots that focus on the economic hardships in the city, the photographs provide an intimate and romantic portrayal of the urban environment. Though the alley cats in Shinjuku are underfed and glare at his camera with suspicion, in Buenos Aires they have healthier coats and nuzzle the lens with a delicate curiosity.
A whole floor of the museum was dedicated to his latest photographs taken in Hawaii since 2005. Here, faced with vast prints that cover whole walls, one was immediately struck by the appearance of something rarely seen in the decades of work upstairs: the horizon. This sudden sense of openness was intensely uplifting. In a momentary return to his high-contrast, grainy aesthetic, one giant, four-panel image shows a glistening, rain-soaked road winding off towards the dauntingly flat horizon. Wherever this road takes Moriyama to next, it is likely that any future retrospective he holds will linger on the mind as much as this one.