Shooting the Breeze

Soap opera: Moriyama's Housing Development (1967).Photo: courtesy of the Japan Society

At moments of aesthetic exhaustion or social despair, art with a capital A often seems untrue, highfalutin, and cowardly. Not surprisingly, many postwar Japanese artists developed this stringent perspective. How could art presume to put into order – to compose – the psychic space that included Hiroshima, Coca-Cola, and cherry blossoms? In such an environment, anything that appeared too transcendental or “artistic” would be dismissed as just a form of pretty lying or sentimental escape. Only a radical artlessness could take the real measure of contemporary Japan. The artist who perfected this outlook was Daido Moriyama, a photographer who is now the subject of two important exhibitions in New York. “My approach,” he once said, “is very simple – there is no artistry; I just shoot freely.”

Organized by Sandra S. Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Alexandra Munroe of the Japan Society, Stray Dog (at the Japan Society Gallery) is a show of 130 photographs selected from various periods in Moriyama’s work; Hunter (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is a group of 40 pictures from the series of that name published in 1972. In art, of course, there is nothing “very simple” about “no artistry” or “just shooting freely.” Few can do it without making work that looks, paradoxically, absurdly overcalculated – like an aristocrat dressing ostentatiously down. When it does succeed, however, the art of artlessness can be a particularly generous form of expression, one in which the boundaries between art and life suddenly seem profoundly meaningless and every loose moment – every “stray dog” – has a brooding power. Moriyama is that kind of dogcatcher.

He was born in 1938 in Osaka, a port known for its rowdy commercial spirit, and moved to Tokyo as a young man. Early on, he grew fascinated by large American military bases, where the American worldview was infiltrating Japanese society. He admired Jack Kerouac’s on-the-road sensibility; he studied the photography of William Klein, whose rough-hewn portrait of New York in 1956 was very influential; he learned from Andy Warhol’s deadpan depiction of consumer culture. During the sixties, Tokyo was the center of radical ferment in Japan, and Moriyama, like many of his generation, was eager to confront the strange new institution that would be nicknamed Japan Inc. But he never became an overtly political or message-driven artist. “Photojournalists in Japan mainly expressed the ‘anxiety and loneliness of a city people’ or ‘provocative criticism of material civilization,’ ” he wrote. “This was irrelevant to me.”

Instead, Moriyama sought a more immediate art – one that seemed to get inside the psychic life of modern Japan rather than comment about it. He began carrying a small camera and shooting pictures whenever the mood struck him, often without using the viewfinder. He was photographing with his body, he said, not just his eye. It was a way of living: Taking a photograph represented a moment of awareness or intensity during the course of a day, more like the intake of a breath than like the detached or careful framing of an experience. He would casually collect these moments, snapping shots out the car window or when walking down the street. Only later would he examine the images and begin to orchestrate the moments into one of his series or books, such as Hunter, which invariably retain a sense of the kaleidoscopic flux of existence.

“His pictures,” said a friend, “are like someone who talks, without looking people in the eye.” Edgy and glancing, the pictures appear grainy, blurred, and coarse, with flare-ups of light and bits of dark obscurity within the image. Sometimes they tilt on an angle. As a young artist, Moriyama sought out marginal people and places, developing a kind of visual patois or street vernacular that further increased the edginess in his art. He snapped strippers, prostitutes, actors who worked in popular theaters; he also caught the street life of cheap cafeterias, billboards, and empty lots. Even people within the mainstream appeared to be outsiders. Businessmen in a room of computers could almost be aliens; two newlyweds, triumphantly carrying home laundry soap, look like their minds have passed through the rinse cycle. Moriyama’s most celebrated image of the outsider is Stray Dog, a grainy picture of a guarded, slinky cur that is observing the observer. This creature of the street embodies the kind of marginal life that cannot be extinguished. He is the primitive pulse that still beats in the cold present.

Moriyama brought the same outsider’s eye to other modern subjects, notably the supermarket shelves and images from the media celebrated by Warhol. But he could not remain as cool in his approach as the American Pop artists. His images of consumer goods or billboards never settle in the eye; they always seem about to move in or out of focus. In a magazine called Provoke, Moriyama caught the close, illicit air of a Japanese love hotel with images of a nude woman that are very blurred, but not in some corny, soft-core fashion. Moriyama’s blur is precise; it sharpens the tradition of erotic art. Isn’t the existential blur of the body what most erotic images fail to convey? If Moriyama insisted upon depicting anything and everything – even a housefly on a dirty, rainy window – it followed that he could not ignore traditional subjects of the kind typically snubbed or parodied by most radical artists of the period. They were also part of the mental landscape. Here, too, he refused to make any obvious comments. His pictures of cherry blossoms, for example, are a grim, wintry gray; but the abstract play of form and light remains exquisite.

When discussing Moriyama, critics typically call him an expressionist and use words like bleak and the void. They are not wrong to do so, but that form of abstract reflection rarely comes into my mind when I look at his art. Moriyama may be an outsider, and his pictures “alienated,” “detached,” and “symbolic” of Japan. But few artists make images that are also so intimate. What Moriyama seems especially close to – when he photographs with his body as well as his eye – is time itself. He is backstage at the play of time; he can feel in his sinews the visceral passage from second to second. Over the years, he has collected his work into books and series, instinctively sensing that his images are best seen with other images. The jostling whole becomes much more than its parts. It is almost life itself, conveying what we are made of – moments blurring into moments.

Shooting the Breeze