New York

Daido Moriyama

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Less art and more truth.” I remember that motto scrawled across a wall in the Robert Frank retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1995–96. The idea that anyone would use photography to try to tell the truth seems preposterous these days, but Frank has been doing so for over fifty years—very often with success. It is now clear that the one artist who most resembles Frank in this quixotic quest is the Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, whose work has finally been made available to an American audience in a spate of recent exhibitions: “Stray Dog,” at the Japan Society; “Hunter,” at the Metropolitan Museum; “Selected Works,” at Laurence Miller Gallery; and “Provoke,” a group show at Roth Horowitz.

Moriyama makes images of what is commonly thought to be invisible to the eye, pushing photography to the limits of representation to capture more than mere documentary veracity. In a statement displayed at the entrance to the Japan Society exhibition, Moriyama is quoted as saying, “My approach is very simple—there is no artistry, I just shoot freely. . . . For me, photography is not about an attempt to create a two-dimensional work of art, but by taking photo after photo, I come closer to truth and reality at the very intersection of the fragmentary nature of the world and my own personal sense of time.” Like Frank, Moriyama has always found books to be the most effective method of transmitting still images, so the exhibitions at the Japan Society and the Metropolitan (together comprising the retrospective that premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in May 1999) featured photographs from the best-known of Moriyama’s twenty books. The show at Roth Horowitz displayed some of the publications themselves, including Japan: A Photo Theater (1968; Moriyama’s first), Farewell Photography (1972), Hunter (1972), and the first three issues of the seminal postwar avant-garde journal Provoke (1968–70), in which Moriyama played a major role.

The show at the Metropolitan Museum consisted entirely of images from Hunter, the book that most reflects Moriyama’s affinity with Frank. Moriyama dedicated Hunter to Jack Kerouac and emulated his quick, spontaneous style, shooting on the run with uncomposed grab shots and printing each image so that it bled through the gutter into the next in one continuous line. The images are all high-contrast and grainy, and the subject is the gritty, darkened soul of an increasingly Americanized postwar Japan. One pair from 1969 shows cans of Campbell’s soup (Warhol was a cherished influence) and Green Giant creamed corn arrayed on supermarket shelves like troops in formation massing for an attack. Warhol’s influence is also evident in the images Moriyama lifted from pop culture: from Brigitte Bardot on a motorcycle to the death scene from Bonnie and Clyde; from professional midget wrestling on TV to a police safety poster showing a rear-end collision.

Like most of his generation, Moriyama was both fascinated and repulsed by the sleazy culture that sprang up around US military bases in Japan, and he photographed its prostitutes, strippers, bikers, and soldiers with an unblinking, often jaundiced eye. (When he came to New York in 1971, he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel and spent days poring over Weegee photographs at moma.) During the ’60s and ’70s, Moriyama was a mostly nocturnal stalk-and-ambush hunter. Eschewing the sharp-focus, authoritative view in favor of the furtive, peripheral gaze, Moriyama used his camera to steal glances, as if to linger would be dangerous, perhaps even fatal.

The Japan Society exhibition featured 130 images from the ’60s through the ’90s, with photographs from each of Moriyama’s major series. Although superficial stylistic changes are evident, what was most striking about the retrospective was the coherence of Moriyama’s vision, which chronicled the brutality and callousness of human society with a dogged determination and a concomitant interrogation of the very terms of communication. During the making of Farewell Photography, Moriyama’s alienation drove him to seek anonymity in his photography, as if the images were making themselves or being made by a man who had become a machine. The most recent work at the Japan Society was a room-size installation of 3,400 Polaroids arranged edge to edge in a huge grid—a record of Moriyama’s studio and living quarters in Tokyo made with an obsessive, mechanical precision.

Robert Frank saw and presented Americans as no one had before; I have the sense that Moriyama did that for the Japanese. He was seven years old when America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he grew up under the combined weight of that defeat and devastation and of the subsequent Americanization of Japan. I can’t imagine that the Japanese were any more pleased with Moriyama’s revelation, initially, than the Americans were with Frank’s. But now Moriyama is a treasured elder, recognized as the crucial link between the masters Shomei Tomatsu and Eikoh Hosoe and younger photographers like Miyako Ishiuchi and Nobuyoshi Araki. The hard truths revealed in his images are less threatening now, subsumed in a historical and art-historical lineage.

The Daido Moriyama retrospective is on view at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, through March 26. The show will then travel to the Museum Folkwang Essen, Germany (May 21–July 2); the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University (Aug. 12–Oct. 29); the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego (Nov. 2000–Jan. 2001); and Japan (dates and venues to be announced).

David Levi Strauss’s collection of essays on art and politics, Between Dog & Wolf, has just been published by Autonomedia/Semiotext(e).