Shinjuku, in Tokyo, Japan is where one of the most influential photographers of our times hangs out.
The area could be compared to our Vancouver Eastside, or maybe even London’s Soho, albeit without the homeless and open drug dealing.
There are prostitutes, gangsters, hoodlums, thieves, and just general ne’er-do-wells frequenting this place. So for a photographer, providing he/she can run the gamut of inherent shall we say, misbehaviour etc, the area is a goldmine….a precious photo around every corner, in every nook or cranny.
And it is this area where the man we are going to talk about today is to be found. His name is Daido Moriyama.
As in places like this all over the world, you will find musicians, artists, actors, writers and all other creative types here, too. Maybe it’s the atmosphere created by the place being in an area behind the main streets, giving everyone there some kind of a mystical, hidden, almost surreal image or aura. There is a plethora of alleys, narrow footpaths, dark corners….you may just take a left and there, right in front of you, may loom up out of the shadows, a drinking club. This kind of thing adds to the mystery of such places.
Certainly, a lot of shady dealing does indeed go on here. Deals are negotiated, finalised, money and other commodities exchange hands freely. And along with all that, there are regular arguments and disagreements, leading to physical violence, although it’s rare to hear of murders being committed. Or shall we say, you never hear about murders because there may be some unwritten code of silence where cases like that are concerned..who knows….the Yakuza equivalent of the Italian “omerta” mayhaps?
Daido Moriyama has been a regular in this area for more than four decades, so he knows it well. Everyone knows him, and whenever he is sitting sipping his favourite drink in any of the tea, coffee or other drinking places, the stream of people passing by saying hello to him is endless.
One wonders how he has managed to stay out of trouble, seeing that the place is also used as a regular haunt by the Yakuza, Japan’s so-called notorious mafia-like gangsters. In fact, Daido says that in one particular drinking club, a separate room was always set aside for the Yakuza, and it even had an opening in the roof, just in case any of them had to make a quick getaway!
It may just be that because everyone knows Daido by now, and what business he is in, that they perhaps have learnt to tolerate him, rather than oust him from their turf. Or it may be that he has found ways to stay out of trouble, by not encroaching on any of their shady dealing etc.
So what is it about Daido that is so enigmatic? What is it that drives him? What makes his work so real, but in a surreal kind of way? What goes on in his mind before, during and after he takes his shots?
“For me photographs are taken in the eye before you’ve even thought what they mean. That’s the reality I’m interested in capturing”, he says. It shows that he doesn’t really have any fixed idea of what he’s going to shoot at the time…rather, it seems that he shoots instinctively and the results turn out to be fortuitous.
Just like his first book he published. It is a not a written book per se, but rather a photo book, a collage of his shots in and around Japan. And with that first book, his shots show a lot of grain, deep darks interspersed with small insignificant pieces of light.
“It may look like I’m just pointing the camera at what’s in front of me….but I’m trying to photograph what people see….see, but don’t notice….something that’s mysterious and unknown in everyday life.”
You may look at some of his photos and think that they are not “good” photographs, in the sense that they’re not clear, not in focus, too dark, don’t show any clear subject, etc, but that in essence is what his photos are all about. “For me, capturing what I feel with my body is more important than the technicalities of photography. If the image is shaking, it’s OK, if it’s out of focus, it’s OK. Clarity isn’t what photography is about”, he emphasises.
One could say that his pictures tend towards the abstract in a sense….shots taken through raindrop-covered windows, deserted shopping areas, odd corners of streets used daily by thousands of people, a piece of newspaper lying in a gutter and so on.
He admits that there came a time when he reached some kind of emotional plateau in photography, so much so that he became positively fed up with the whole thing, and amazingly, set out to destroy it in some way.
The result was a load of blurred, out of focus, damaged negatives, which he thrust into his publisher’s hand, asking him to make whatever he could with them. And make something his agent did.
The book that came out of his frustration was a book that showed surreal beautiful images, some so blurred as to be completely indistinguishable. Somehow, people loved those images, he says, and the book, instead of destroying his photography, went on to become a best seller.
But, about a year later, he felt that he missed shooting his stomping ground, so he picked himself up again and started photographing more “normal” things, “….like what you see in the tourist shops of Japan…you know, cheery blossom trees, Mount Fuji, etc..”.
But his inner demons struck again, and instead of producing the pictures of sparkling cherry blossoms etc, he made the same subjects look sombre, dark and other-worldly.
And amazingly, although he lives in a vastly photogenic country, what with the ancient temples of Kyoto, the neon night life of Osaka, Tsukiji Central Fish market, Funaoka outdoor baths etc, Daido always returns back to Shinjuku, his favourite place of all. Why?
“I’ve never been attracted to places that are very hygienic,” he says…..“I like a touch of squalor.”
But better still, let’s see what makes him tick, through his own words and ways, here:
all photos courtesy youtube.com