A Matter of Reasonably Abstracted Sensuality — Daido Moriyama: Record

© Daido Moriyama, Record, Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Born in Osaka, Japan, in 1938, Daido Moriyama came to photography in the late 1950s while fitfully pursuing a career as a graphic designer. A 1967 award from the Japan Photo Critics Association launched him on a career that immediately peaked with his first book, Japan: A Photo Theatre (1968)¹. Radicalized by street demonstrations in the late 1960s against the Vietnam War and the United States’ continuing presence in Japan, Moriyama joined the group of theorists and photographers — including his close friend, Takuma Nakahira, Koji Taki, Yutaka Takanashi, and Takahiko Okada — associated with the short-lived magazine, Provoke (1968–1969). The powerful intersection of photography, political protest, and such avant-garde performance practices as the dance form, butoh, in the Provoke group encouraged Moriyama in his exploration of photography as itself a kind of performance². The most notable aspect of this period of his work is the are-bure-boke (“shaky-blurry”) style that gives to Moriyama’s Provoke-era photographs a blazing immediacy, even as the photographs themselves push the form of photography almost to the breaking-point. Throughout his long career, the photographer has returned again and again to the form of the photobook, producing scores of books each of which constitutes a manifestation of Moriyama’s life as itself something akin to performance³.

In the wake of his participation in the group affiliated with Provoke, and the publication of his devastating deconstruction of the norms of photography in Farewell Photography⁴ (1972), Daido Moriyama began to publish a small magazine called Kiroku or Record. Five issues appeared in 1972–1973, but then the magazine disappeared, only to be reborn with Record 6 in a more substantial format in 2006. Moriyama has continued to publish Record at the rate of two or three issues a year, and in late 2017 Record 36 appeared. Daido Moriyama: Record offers a beautifully printed, expansive, and carefully edited overview of the first thirty issues of the magazine (1972–2016), including the illuminating texts by Moriyama himself that accompany most issues, as well as a provocative introduction by the volume’s editor, Mark Holborn⁵.

Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama

In the text from Record 1, Moriyama suggests that the magazine is offered as an attempt to record “my own short and insignificant history” (21). A similar theme is picked up in “From Document to Memory,” an essay Moriyama published in 1973, where he claims that the subjects of his photographs “are captured only as part of my own reality.”⁶ Exploring the etymological links between kiroku (“document” or “record”), kioku (“memory”), and kinen (“commemoration”) — each term sharing the initial character ki (comparable to the Latin, script) — Moriyama complicates this memoir-like conception of his work by insisting that photography, understood as “memory/commemoration/document” has nothing to do with “expression/aesthetics.”⁷ Even as he suggests that his work is inextricably linked to his own reality, Moriyama thus also argues that “photography, in its very formation and existence, essentially blocks the photographer’s imagination and feelings.”⁸ Rather than being imaginative expressions of the artist’s engagement with the world, Moriyama sees his work in terms simply of his own existence: “photographs I take while on a trip are the commemoration of the fact that I existed in that place or that I happened to see something there — they are not the commemoration of my visit.”⁹ At the same time, these photographs are not simply records of particular moments in the photographer’s existence; rather, they are offered as evidence of realities both before and after that caught in the photograph itself:

I have two opposite desires simultaneously; the desire to go back to the origin and the desire to go beyond the ending. To put it a bit provocatively, what makes me release the shutter are things that allow my cells to sense such extremes.¹⁰

In Memories of a Dog (1984), Moriyama makes it clear that what is at stake here is “the power of memory that photographs possess.” Reflecting on an antique photograph, “bleached by the sun and weathered like a fossil,” of an Ainu village he had encountered on the island of Hokkaido, Moriyama notes:

The image in that photograph does not appeal to sentiment, does not speak to emotions, and moreover it rejects all words and feelings and sometimes even imagination. It is just blazingly drenched by countless shafts of light.¹¹

Describing the light of Okinawa in Record 25, Moriyama suggests that “it is perhaps a matter of reasonably abstracted sensuality” (298), and I want to suggest that it is this “reasonably abstracted sensuality” that characterizes the photographic commemoration of the photographer’s existence that Daido Moriyama: Record so beautifully documents. Even the most casual browser of this volume cannot help but be struck by the sheer proliferation of images, by the intense barrage of concrete details, and by the way the photographs reflect the physicality of Moriyama’s relation to reality.

Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama

Moriyama himself admits that he has something of a “fetish” for images of “machines,” “stuff,” and “animals,”¹² and Daido Moriyama: Record offers multiple examples of all these categories.¹³ Other “fetishes” that stand out include city street scenes — often featuring women glimpsed as they walk by — juxtapositions of industry and nature, the occasional cityscape and landscape, and indirect self-portraits in mirrors and shadows. Although some of the images here feature the are-bure-boke (“shaky-blurry”) style of Farewell Photography, most of the photographs found in the issues of Record are strikingly clear and sharply focused, and this clarity is reinforced by the dramatic ways in which Moriyama uses the blackest of black inks in his black-and-white photographs. The comparatively scarce color work included in Daido Moriyama: Record is marked as well by the way that primary colors often stand out in sharp contrast to the rest of the photographic image.What the hundreds of images of concrete details lovingly documented in Record reveal, then, is the multiplicity and complexity of contemporary life as lived by the photographer himself. This spider’s web, those ravens, that traffic signal, these streets, all these objects that constitute the photographic subjects of Moriyama’s work equally constitute Moriyama as the photographer who existed in that place. The photographs commemorate the photographer himself precisely in their multiform specificity and in their utter profusion across the pages of Record. What this means, of course, is that no single photograph can possibly capture what it is that Moriyama is doing: only in the juxtaposition of the hundreds of images that constitute Daido Moriyama: Record can we begin to grasp his photographic project. Not seeking the perfect image in the decisive moment, Moriyama is instead throwing himself into reality and letting the actuality of his existence leave its commemorative record over the pages of each issue of Record (and equally over the pages of each of his countless photobooks).

Moriyama himself describes his physical relationship to the act of photographing in terms of a series of animal analogues: a polliwog (62), a cockroach (72), a fly (124), a caterpillar (146), and an “entranced insect” (238). The most iconic of all Moriyama’s images — Stray Dog, Misawa, Aomori (1971) — makes a cameo appearance in Record 30, devoted to the city of Marrakesh (420–421), and the photographer does not hesitate to describe his work in terms of “biting” at the world:

I consider the style of my own street ‘snaps’ as scraping up and snatching all kinds of views of all kinds of people and scenes I encounter on the street. At the back of my mind I am biting at everything in the external world. It is almost the same as stealing. (284)
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama
Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama

The physicality of Moriyama’s work is reflected in the ever-fluctuating perspective from which the photographs are taken: almost never at human eye-level, the photographer’s camera generally looks up or looks down, often at an angle. One of the most exhilarating aspects of looking through Daido Moriyama: Record is, in fact, the dizzying and almost continual shift of vantage points as the pages flow past. Caught up in the photographer’s ever-shifting physical existence, one easily experiences a sensuality “reasonably abstracted” from any particular encounter between a “subject” and an “object.” 
 
The intense corporeality of Record provides a link between Moriyama and the earlier history of photography, a link that serves as the theme of Mark Holborn’s introductory essay in Daido Moriyama: Record. In a 2016 interview with Holborn, Moriyama emphasizes the central importance of William Klein’s book, Life is Good and Good for You in New York (1955): “William Klein in many ways inspired me to be a photographer . . . . His impact was decisive. In taking these pictures of the New York he knew, he was also taking apart all photography that previously existed. Japanese photographers like myself were able to begin because of what he did to deconstruct photography.” (10)

In his own text from Record 23, Moriyama elaborates just what it was about Klein’s work that made such an impression on him:

The abundant results of extremely violent and freewheeling camera work that were tossed into that single volume made me dizzy. For the first time I experienced the physiological pleasure and impact of the photographic image. (270)

Remarks like these lead Holborn to argue that “Moriyama — for all his radical Japanese qualities and deep black graphic arrangement — is, in fact, rooted in the conventional history of photography” (9), and Holborn grounds his case for this in the photographer’s admiration of Nicéphore Niépce, William Klein, and Shomei Tomatsu, as well as in his apprenticeship in the studio of Eikoh Hosoe (9–11). Reflecting on Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826–1827) — itself arguably the first photograph — Moriyama says:

By Nicéphore Niépce — Harry Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, The University of Texas at Austin, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25274651
You don’t see any other photographs that can demonstrate so explicitly how photography is simply a device for the play of light and shadow . . . . I sense that photography begins and ends with that image. Without wanting to sound too exaggerated, I believe the essence of all photographs that have ever been taken and all that are being taken now is captured in that single picture. (13)

Holborn does not explore the tension between Moriyama’s references to the history of photography and his equally insistent claims that his own photographic work resists imagination and any aesthetic theory grounded in expression. Holborn does, however, rightly emphasize the importance of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) to Moriyama’s evolution as an artist, suggesting that “the thirty issues of Moriyama’s Record might appropriately be cut and taped to form a never-ending odyssey in scroll-form” (12), thereby linking Moriyama’s work to the scroll manuscripts both of Kerouac’s book and of the Japanese haiku poet, Basho. In a 1999 essay, “Highway,” Moriyama returns to Kerouac’s work and considers what being “on the road”¹⁴ really means. The road itself is “the place where various things mix. And from that mixture, the individual items line up. Their reality, their actuality, becomes a kind of foundation. That is the act of being on the road.” In this sense, then, what Daido Moriyama: Record offers us is very much the foundation of Moriyama’s existence, a commemoration of the incredibly diverse mixture of objects and people, animals and machines, cities and landscapes that record a life lived on the road with camera in hand.


[1] Daido Moriyama, Japan: A Photo Theatre, reprint (Tokyo: Shincho-sha, Photo Musée, 1995).
[2] For an excellent account of the context and work of those associated with Provoke, see Provoke: Between Protest and Performance — Photography in Japan 1960/1975, edited by Diane Dufour, Matthew S. Witkovsky, with Duncan Forbes and Walter Moser (Göttingen: Steidl, 2016).
 [3] The best overview in English of Moriyama’s work is Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog, edited by Sandra S. Phillips and Alexandra Munroe (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1999).
 [4] Daido Moriyama, Farewell Photography, reprint (Tokyo: PowerShovelBooks, 2006).
 [5] Daido Moriyama: Record, edited with an introduction by Mark Holborn (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2017). All page references in my essay are to this volume.
 [6] Daido Moriyama, “From Document to Memory,” in Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers, introduction by Anne Wilkes Tucker, edited by Ivan Vartanian, Akihiro Hatanaka, and Yutaka Kambayashi (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2006), 95–104, 95.
 [7] Moriyama, “From Document to Memory,” 96–97, as well as notes 1 and 2.
 [8] Moriyama, “From Document to Memory,” 96.
 [9] Moriyama, “From Document to Memory,” 101.
 [10] Moriyama, “From Document to Memory,” 103.
 [11] Daido Moriyama, Memories of a Dog, translated by John Junkerman (Tucson: Nazraeli Press, 2004), 137.
 [12] Moriyama, “From Document to Memory,” 103.
 [13] Photographs © 2017 by Daido Moriyama [Required Photo Credit].
 [14] Daido Moriyama, “Highway,” in Setting Sun, 115–124, 123.


Jonathan Scott Lee teaches philosophy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A specialist in recent French philosophy, he also writes about contemporary music, art, and photography. Current projects include an extended essay on photographer Daisuke Yokota and a series of musical compositions for small chamber ensembles.


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