Daido Moriyama: The Shock From Outside

From Aperture 203, Daido Moriyama speaks with Ivan Vartanian about the unending newness of photographs.

Interview with Ivan Vartanian, first published in the issue 203 of Aperture magazine (Summer 2011). Moriyama’s latest volume, Labyrinth (Aperture, 2012), is now available.

Japanese master-photographer Daido Moriyama has been at the forefront of the medium for more than fifty years. He has published dozens of volumes of photographs, including Japanese Theatre (1968), Farewell, Photography (1972), Daidohysteric (1993), and Hokkaido (2008), as well as numerous collections of essays. On the occasion of his upcoming retrospective at Osaka’s National Museum of Art, Ivan Vartanian spoke with the photographer about vision and motivation, context and information, color and black and white, and the unending newness of photographs.

IVAN VARTANIAN: Could you speak about your thoughts on the connection between image and language?

DAIDO MORIYAMA: Language is a direct medium and communicates meaning and intention straight. A photograph, on the other hand, is subject to the viewer’s memory, aesthetics, and feelings—all of which affect how the photograph is seen. It isn’t conclusive the way language is. But that’s what makes photography interesting. There’s no point in taking photographs that use language in an expository way. Taking photographs for the purpose of language is for the most part meaningless for me. Rather, photography provokes language. It recasts language; within it, various gradations outline a new language. It provokes the world of language: looking at images leads to the discovery of a new language. That is what I am about. Certainly, photographers—in particular photographers like me, who take street snaps—don’t shuttle back to words with each shot. The outside world is suffused with language. I don’t carry language and apply it to the outside world; instead, messages come in from the outside. That is what provokes me and what I react to. That is the nature of the connection, I think.

That said, I cannot explain every image that I have taken. If I tried to, it would be a sham and boring; it would come across as trivial. That’s not the intention. Each photograph is felt, but there isn’t just one reason for releasing the shutter—there are several reasons, even with a single exposure. The act of photographing is a physiological and concrete response but there is definitely some awareness present. When I take snapshots, I am always guided by feeling, so even in that moment when I’m taking a photograph it is impossible to explain the reason for the exposure. Something might, for example, seem erotic to me. That in itself is a gradation that contains a multiplicity of elements.

IV: In your early magazine work, your photographs are often accompanied by texts you’ve written in an “editorial voice” of sorts.

DM: When I was young, I used to write accompanying texts for my images. Those writings had something of a didactic relationship with the images. In the end, the language with which the viewer sees the photograph changes the image’s content. Even if I chose a word or language with which to take an image, it would be impossible to have everyone feel the same way. Perhaps by chance, a viewer may have a similar feeling.

In working with my older photographs, I treat them as if they are something new—if I didn’t, presenting older work would be pointless. What I photographed at a certain point may have been vivid at the time, but with the passage of years, its luster weathers with it. All work is subject to format, ways of looking, editorial style—all of which influence and alter the work.

That process of alteration is one of the things I love about photography. In essence, through the process of recomposing the work, the photograph is revitalized as something that is contemporary—now. This can be done countless times with any image. In a way, this is like saying that within each image, there is a multitude of possibilities. A single photograph contains different images.

I happen to have produced many books of photographs. I work with others on them—people I trust to a certain extent—and I leave it to them to do the recomposition (as, for example, with Shashin yo, Sayonara [Farewell, Photography; 1972]). The work becomes more vivid than when I do it myself. If I do it myself, I cannot avoid being influenced by memory; I strain to stave off that impulse and inadvertently create a palpable tension—and the outcome is often odd! Whereas when I work with a third party—or even someone more removed—filtering the images through their eyes, the photographs come alive, I think. Photographs that I’ve taken ten years ago even now seem vivid. If an image is good, it is brought back to life by the feelings of the viewer.

IV: What about the function of the photograph as information? Your work, especially from the 1970s, had so much to do with destabilizing this aspect of photography.

DM: Photographs of any generation are in a basic sense, at that moment, information. Photography is underpinned by information. No matter how conceptual a photograph may be, it contains information at its most fundamental level. But the means by which information is communicated is specific to each generation. A recently shot photograph is just as viable to me as one shot ten years ago.

IV: Do you make a distinction between the different media in which your work appears—magazines and books, exhibitions?

DM: I don’t generally make a distinction between them. A magazine has a particular objective, namely it is about the now. In that sense, it uses the information aspects of photographs. And depending on the editorial direction, the photographs may radically change. So if the editorial direction of a particular magazine doesn’t sit well with me, I don’t allow my photographs to be used in it. But in principle, whether a photograph is framed and mounted as part of an exhibition or shown in a photo-book or magazine—these are just different modalities of the same image. Each is interesting in its way. For that reason, I don’t place a lower ranking on magazines. At times, in fact, the magazine reproduction has been the best format for an image, trumping other forms. Again, what interests me is seeing my photographs in a manner that makes them seem different. And in the magazine context, if the photograph doesn’t come alive, it doesn’t necessarily mean there was something wrong with the editorial direction; it probably means the photographs aren’t that strong. There are two sides of a coin.

All images Untitled, 2010, © Daido Moriyama