July 26, 2009

Daido Moriyama: Landscapes of Memory


Some photographers have a style that is so individual it comes to be understood as where the value of their work lies. Daido Moriyama is one such photographer. Of course, what he does is not entirely without precedent, but in the raw formalism of his pictures and the dogged, almost obsessive, nature of his approach, he has created something uniquely his own. It is an art that is intensely personal, but at the same time implies a kind of “democratic” regard for lived experience. In these pictures there is a persistent sense of movement, of a restlessness that cannot be contained; each frame captures a scene hardly glimpsed, but tries to take all that can be gained from each. The very act of making a picture becomes an act of self-definition, an attempt to locate himself in the world and a way for him to document the theatre of self – it is, in this sense, as much a psychological history of his native Japan and its heritage of cultural dislocation in the post-war years, as it is a self-conscious expression of his own particular photographic vision.

Photography becomes the medium that carries his identity and by extension, the identity of the country where he was born, the place that has been his most frequent, most intensely pictured, subject. Yet Moriyama as an observer often seems detached, his gaze astringent or even brutal and as a result his is not of an art of comfort or of easy resolve, but rather at its best (that is to say, at its most profound) his photographs offer a view of the world defined by a deep uncertainty, where even memory is eroded by time. Perhaps this accounts for the distinctive way in which Moriyama uses photographic materials, making his pictures without regard for conventional forms, but being carried by the process itself, catching fragments from the swell of urban life, that searching quality of his pictures, with their dark tonality giving light an almost physical presence – its action on the visual space of the photograph becomes a kind of corrosive element, working by alchemy to show how the same landscapes of memory, its aggregate layers, are shaped and eventually obscured. The compulsive rate of Moriyama’s picture making too is emblematic: each photograph he makes is a questioning of his own ever-changing relation to that (photographic) moment.

Just seven years old at the end of the Second World War, if he did not fully comprehend the devastating changes wrought by the atomic bombs and those blasted, skeletal landscapes, or the subsequent occupation by American forces, he must surely have felt and been witness to the effect these events had on those around him, indeed on the county as a whole, during his peripatetic childhood. He writes quite poignantly about the particular quality of those base towns, the centres of changing cultural values that swamped traditional mores. They fascinated him, as they did so many others, implying a kind of permissiveness not seen before. So it’s not surprising then that his most important and distinctive influences are largely American, which he fused in turn with elements of the (then) new, radical seeming literary avant-garde. The resultant style is defined by the charged over-lap between the two, driven by a sense of uncertainty or foreboding so characteristic of the post-war era, the sense, perhaps, of some catastrophe, some incipient violence, undermining the foundations of social order and then of personal identity itself, where the individual is no longer the agent of that same (presumed) order, but is tossed in the chaos of a dystopian present. There is no future in Moriyama’s photographs, only a fugitive past, tentatively seen and slipping just beyond one’s grasp.

So while the formal qualities of his pictures, the idiosyncratic use of grain and contrast, for example, are very much his own, their stylistic energy and their intent have some clear (and admitted) precedents – when, most especially in an American context, that means the fascination with movement as a means of expression, as an artistic strategy in itself, the use of relentless self-questioning as a dark mirror to reflect the wider truth of social realities, and an obsession with the detritus of consumer culture, all the pitiful stuff left in its wake – but Moriyama’s work is in no way just the sum of his influences. What he has gained from his predecessors is so completely reconfigured as to be without parallel anywhere in the medium (which is basically a generic form), making something as singular as memory, a vision from inside the eye of one man.

He is the ever restless, brooding spirit of Japanese photography (with Araki posing as its trickster, let’s say) and it is the total narrative of his pictures, the work as a whole, that defines the scope of his achievements, which in the deep interiority of what he does, has been to articulate a radically personal vision, making photographs not just as objects, but from the substance of his own memory, ephemeral and fragmented, where no aspect of reality seems wholly comprehensible or made to fit neatly into ordered frames, each with some designated meaning. Moriyama documents all those minute skips in the fabric of reality, of what is real to him; these are the flashing points where all multiple realities (collective and individual) converge, coming together and then apart in that infinitesimal fraction of a second, leaving its trace only as a negative, as an inverse of the fact – he reconstitutes memory in the photograph. What seems to matter most, however, is the photographic gesture itself, the action of pointing the camera and what that implies, its relation to perception; he doesn’t put the camera between himself and the world – he is the camera, the camera is his memory, and it really is as insubstantial as it seems, when it’s hard to sure what was seen, what has been lived. This is a landscape with no horizon; its perspectives are all skewed inward, but are at the same time a measure of the world beyond his own experience, where there is no separation between the living memory, as it is endlessly re-ordered and the shifting patterns of our social landscape.