Daido Moriyama: The Shock From Outside

IV: Your work is largely black and white. How do you think of color in relation to black-and-white work?

DM: There isn’t much difference between photographing in color or black-and-white. I am someone who has been making black-and-white photographs forever—and to be honest I still prefer black and white. But part of what makes color photography interesting to me are digital cameras. With film cameras, your choice is made once the film is loaded. With digital, on the other hand, something that is shot in color can be converted to black and white. So for the time being I am shooting in color.

Monochromatic photography is conventionally thought of as having more symbolic, abstract, dreamlike qualities. But I don’t necessarily think that just because an image is in color it is closer to reality. Recently, many people have been asking me why I’m photographing in color. It is tantamount to asking me why I am using digital to shoot. What difference does it make? Particularly outside of Japan, there is an eagerness to have a clear-cut reason behind every choice, I find. (The same goes for explanations about the images themselves.) But there isn’t any real need to provide these answers. Making a definitive declaration of intent or meaning kills the photograph. Whether I want to print something in color or make it black and white all has to do with what I am feeling at the time.

One distinction I can make—I’ve written about this in my essays: black-and-white photography has an erotic edge for me, in a broad sense. Color doesn’t have that same erotic charge. It doesn’t have so much to do with what is being photographed; in any black-and-white image there is some variety of eroticism. If I am out wandering and I see photographs hung on the walls of a restaurant, say, if they are black and white, I get a rush! It’s really a visceral response. I haven’t yet seen a color photograph that has given me shivers. That is the difference between the two.

But my interest in color is increasing. Sometimes when I see one of my black-and-white photographs, I think to myself: “That’s a Daido Moriyama image.” Whereas color work seems wholly different to me—still, there is something good about it. So what interests me is seeing my own work differently: the new, vague feeling of accepting the color work as my own. That is where I am now. At that vague, flickering stage.

IV: There is a tendency now to think of photography in terms of themes or concepts.

DM: There are no themes in my work. It may be difficult for this to be understood outside of Japan—and indeed, often my work is understood as having a theme. Even if I were to construct a theme (and it’s not as if I’ve never done so), I can’t really think about it as I’m working. It is too limiting, and the camera work becomes restricted. Within that constraint the photograph becomes a fabricated image, and for me that is meaningless. The work I am shooting now is being done in Tokyo, but I don’t necessarily think of it as having a theme that is “Tokyo.” With a predetermined theme, possibilities are reduced, and the conversation then becomes one of form. That’s not something that I am capable of doing, really.

IV: Many of your early writings about your photography discussed the sensation of taking photographs, which you often describe sometimes as haziness but mostly as a sort of stimulation. Has this changed for you? What’s the sensation of taking photo- graphs now?

DM: Nothing is really different. The passing decades change how we see—but basically I have always been shooting for exactly the same reason. The shock that comes from the outside world. That’s why imposing a theme drains photography of its spark. The outside world is extremely fluid and mixed-up. Wrestling it into a “theme” is an impossibility. That mix in its totality cannot be photographed. Within a thin sliver of this world, only the thinnest of segments can be recorded with the photograph—but I keep photographing. There is nothing else. With conceptual photography or with a prescribed theme, it is more or less apparent if the photograph is a success or not. When the object of the photograph is the city, it’s far from clear whether the photograph is working. In one way, it is a very naïve way of thinking. But to shoot images is to receive shocks from the outside world. I don’t maintain that awareness for extended periods while shooting, but through the outside world my own consciousness changes. So, in relation to the city, I face the world and with this tiny camera I take photographs. Whatever the city—not only Tokyo—it is suffused with art; it is overflowing with the stuff. With that, I get a jolt of adrenaline. Once you experience that actuality you are unable to take any other kind of photographs.

Having said that, there are also instances when I work with assigned subjects, like the photographs I am taking now at the University Museum at the University of Tokyo. It’s not a subject I chose myself but it is interesting to me. Looking for the bizarre and fantastic within that cordoned-off area intrigues me—partly precisely because I don’t usually take photographs like this. Say I am asked to photograph a singer; my camera work really isn’t well-suited for such work, but somewhere in the course of making the image, it becomes interesting. And from that session, one of the shots might make it into my printed work, and it is then entirely detached from its original meaning. There are no hard and fast rules with what and how I shoot.

It may seem strange to say, but I believe in the outside world of the city more than I believe in myself. I think it is through it that change happens. I have been this way since I was young. Feeling the world to be a threat. It’s a continual anxiety— but there’s nothing to be done about it. There are times when I am by myself at home at night, and I start thinking about the city’s Shinjuku area at night, and how interesting it must be—it becomes difficult for me to sit still.

Photography never reaches a state of completion. That is what makes it interesting—amazing. When I was young I made projects like Farewell, Photography. It was all fiction. Although, for me at that time, it was a form of reality. It was excessive. Pop, cheap junk, scandal, accident, somewhere in the day-in-day-out, there is something extraordinary. There is a ton of it. That is what I am interested in. That is what I respond to.

Ivan Vartanian is an author and editor based in Tokyo. His most recent publication, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s & ’70s (Aperture, 2009), received the 2010 Award for Historical Photobook at the Rencontres d’Arles.

All images Untitled, 2010, © Daido Moriyama

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