Published in Artforum, November 2011.
Spanning more than half a century, “Daido Moriyama: On the Road” confirmed the artist’s importance to the story of Japanese photography. The quintessential street photographer, Moriyama has, since 1965, prowled avenues and alleys in Japanese cities and across the globe. His quarry is not only the unguarded human subject, often seen from the side or behind, but also our idealized, artificial replicas of ourselves, from store mannequins to movie-poster idols. Moriyama’s art, despite his penchant for surface and artifice, is anything but celebratory. If his touchstone is Warhol, whose art he seems to mimic in a 1974 silkscreen Harley-Davidson and who appears on a TV screen in Tokyo, 2011, it’s the Warhol of the 1962-63 “Death and Disaster” series. For Moriyama, despite his disavowal in a recent interview of any social or documentary mission, urban life is tragic theater.
The exhibition opened with two rooms encompassing the artist’s recent output. His newest photographs of Tokyo, in the first gallery, struck an anomalous note: Hung in three rows that encircled the room, the prints were both large and vibrantly colored. Though familiar themes recurred—a family of Western mannequins in a shop window counterbalanced a homeless man slumped on a narrow ledge—the saturated reds and blues made a bright contrast to the small-scale, grainy black-and-white images that predominated elsewhere. I couldn’t help but imagine them as an acrid response to Nobuyoshi Araki’s intimate studies of flowers. The second gallery sampled images taken around the world, from Taipei to Buenos Aires, Antwerp to New York. In this last city, Moriyama’s lens transforms a dented trash can found moldering in half-melted snow into a gorgeous play of surfaces. Though the can is perfectly legible as an object, the photograph epitomizes another aspect of Moriyama’s art: his almost hallucinatory focus upon texture. Urban grit is equated almost literally with the grain of the photograph, as if dirt had been rubbed into each print.
Moriyama achieves this effect, in part, by increasing the contrast in his images, a technique that in its consistency also serves to unite a disparate array of subject matter. A male actor wearing papier-mâché breasts in one early photograph can be compared to the mangy animal in the iconic 1971 image Stray Dog. Neither an automobile on fire nor the collision of two others in a pair of 1969 images is discordant with a frankly erotic 1976 study of a cabbage head. Moriyama’s interest in light and shadow is made explicit in a series of that title, made in 1981-82, which features, among other subjects, denim jeans, the vinyl top of a Jeep Wrangler, and the rusting hull of a Russian cargo ship. With so many coarse, dark pictures, a room of color prints, much smaller than those in the first gallery, offered a pleasing contrast. Ishinomaki, 1969, features multicolor lightbulbs strung along two delicate curves that arc away from Moriyama’s lens; they hang in the twilit sky like reddish-orange plants. Captured by any other photographer, the image of camellia petals on the pavement in Izu, 1982, would likely have a certain delicacy; with Moriyama, however, the petals seem to have fallen like hammer blows.
The bulk of the survey proceeded chronologically, and one could witness Moriyama’s subjects becoming more pedestrian—in both senses of the world—without his images losing their oddity or compositional acuity. At the outset of his career, Moriyama claims, he was “deliberately seeking a strange image.” These days, though, “everything looks strange.” We profit from this alienated vision.