Inspirations: Daido Moriyama

I want to start a series where we talk about inspirational photographers and their work. I will try to focus on artists who some might not be too familiar with and give insights into their lives and work. Hopefully it will bring you new ideas and inspire you to try new things.

The first entry to this series will be about the 1938 born, Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama.



Just by looking at his work you will instantly notice one thing: His images are different. During the 1960s when he started to become a known photographer, photography was expected to mostly be an objective depiction of reality. Daido Moriyama however was one of the first to use photography for showing his own reality. His images give us an idea what his perception of the world was, and how he could use the camera with all its limitations to do so.


A short vita

Moriyama was born in 1938 in Ikeda, Japan. Despite initially enrolling in a graphic design course at the Osaka Municipal School of Industrial Art and working as a graphic designer, he started working for and learning from photographer Takeji Iwamiya in 1959. After getting in to contact with several influential photographers and working as a freelancer, six years later he moved to Zushi, a coastal prefecture south of Tokyo. This is where he started developing his signature “snapshot” style while taking images at the Yokosoka US Navy base. This body of work eventually got him noticed by the publisher of the Camera Mainichi magazine, Shoji Yamagishi. Yamagishi published Moriyama’s images in four consecutive editions, through which he gained a lot of publicity. During this time he worked on several series, such as his portraits of actors and “Japan: A Photo Theatre”.





After he published his own magazine “Scandal” together with the artist Shuji Terayama, Daido Moriyama joined the revolutionary “PROVOKE” magazine to contribute to its second and third edition. PROVOKE aimed to present an alternative voice in photography. The exhibition “A Century of Photography: History of Japanese Photographic Expression in the past 100 years” by Shomei Tomeastu, a prominent figure at the time, made photographers Takuma Nakahira and Koji Taki seek for an independent view on photography, free of any authority. They wanted a voice which dealt with the rapidly changing Japanese society and the increasing commercialism.



The members of PROVOKE knew that photography could always just partially show reality. Instead of striving for compositional perfection and other criteria for a “good” photograph, they focussed on capturing their own, immediate reality. Unsharp and grainy images were just as valuable as any other photograph. Their understanding of perfection was producing images that could convey the photographers experience.

They also saw the camera merely as a tool – a tool with limitations. But instead of trying to bypass those limitations, they used them to enhance the authenticity of an image. The first few cut off images when putting in a new roll of film, scratches on the actual film or not using the viewfinder, all that brought them closer to capturing the experienced moment.



His view on photography

Moriyama has been highly influential because of his unconventional methods and evocative images. He himself said that he doesn’t view photography as an artistic process. He would simply shoot everything, regardless of rules or boundaries. Many of his images were taken while he was driving or running without considering composition by looking through the viewfinder. He believed that concentrating on composition would make him miss the decisive moment. The images would lose their immediate, real nature and hence move further away from a true depiction of reality.

In his book “A Dialogue with Photography” he concluded that he wasn’t trying to create a 2-dimensional piece of art. By taking shot after shot on the edge between his own perception of time and the objective nature of our world, he would get closer and closer to capturing the truth.

Daido Moriyama is still active to this day and is regarded as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. While having primarily travelled around Japan working on countless projects, Moriyama also photographed New York and Paris, where he lived for two years.




A selection of images



What always fascinates me about Moriyamas work is for one the mystery almost all his images contain. But they’re also so precise in expressing an emotion or telling a story. This image taken in northern Hokkaido in 1978, like many others, just tells as much about the actual moment as it speaks about Moriyama himself. The lone wanderer lost in a storm of snow with cars just passing by…Moriyama once compared himself to a stray dog – always on the road, roaming around, getting lost in the city. As much as his skeptical approach to photography brought him recognition, it also made him an outsider – a unique persona in the world of photography.



Moriyama took this image on board of a ferry to Hokkaido, home of the indigenous Ainu People. The strait separating it from the mainland was always said to be a border between two cultures. The distanced and anonymous approach by Moriyama makes this image almost seem surreal. It seems to be a twilight zone between two eras and cultures, where the past and future are unclear. This could also just be a normal image taken from a ferry. But the use of light, shadow and tonal contrast give it so much story.



The last image from Hokkaido I’d like to show you here. The coal mining town Yubari, where this was taken at, lost its importance in the 1960s due to the rise of the oil industry. Instead of objectively documenting the changes this city was going through, Moriyama took a more subjective, atmospheric approach. Still, this image tells me more about Yubari than any “documenting” photograph ever could.



This image was part of the series “Three beautiful places” published in Camera Mainichi. Moriyama completely breaks the cliché of a beautiful place. The strange lighting and appearance of the boy overshadow anything that could be considered beautiful. It shows us how important going beyond the obvious is. With many of his images, Moriyama managed to find the truth hidden behind a layer of pretentiousness.



Normally, this would be a standard group photo. Moriyama however takes the faces, the most important aspect of a group photo, away. He makes these men anonymous and lets us judge them based only on their posture, physique and gestures. Suggesting instead of slapping the truth in your face – I think this is what makes Moriyamas images so compelling. It’s what you don’t show within the frame that makes a great photograph.



This is one of my favourite images of Daido Moriyama. Everything from her pose to the lighting and composition add to a narrative and a certain atmosphere. He shows us that storytelling isn’t about the perfect composition or the sharpness of an image – it’s all about the moment. We should make getting the moment our priority and accept the limitations of the camera that come along when trying to capture it. Everything from a blur to grain will add to what it felt like being there and experiencing it. Embrace imperfection – probably one of the most important lessons to learn from Moriyama.



Your opinion

If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to take a deeper look into Daido Moriyamas work, as I can only scratch the surface here and give you my opinion. His way of questioning every aspect of photography made him one of the most influential photographers in the 20th century. But what do you think about his “snapshots” and unconventional methods? Are they just snapshots and blurry images or do you see more in them? I’d love to hear!



All images used in this post belong to © Daido Moriyama. No copyright violation intendet

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All images are subject to copyright © Aram Franke 2019

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