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the philosopher and the trickster: daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki

moriyama: …but don’t you think that using a flash in the American fashion is also exciting?
araki: oh yes. using a massive flash, smoking a big cigar and living it up! a kind of brutality–your pictures are violent in that sense, aren’t they? don’t you think that it is necessary to have a sense of brutality in photography?
moriyama: yes. envy, possessiveness, and jealousy, followed by violence which is engendered by these emotions.
araki: scary…but this is, i believe, what photography is.
(from an interview moderated by akihito yasumi, shinjuku, tokyo, july 28, 2003)

i’ve been researching quite alot on two seminal figures of modern japanese photography, daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki. and i’ve been paralyzed in thoughts of writing about them here, because as i read and look and read some more, i’m struck with a familiar student’s lament: the more i know, the less i know.

at first i thought the two could not be more different and polarized in their approaches to photogrpahy and responses to the world within and around them. and i had prematurely written off araki as a borderline pornographer, which he still is sometimes, but he’s also much more than that.

as i read first about moriyama, and then coming across araki’s name here and there in that research, i wondered how the two were connected. they are not of the same photographic generation, per se; perhaps solely divided by how old they were while they experienced the end of wwii. moriyama’s photographs consistently evoke dark, struggling identity-in-the-making. they are grainy, full of contrast, and seem to be about the eternal underside of things. araki’s photos, in contrast, seem to be puerile, joyous reaction against such moribund thoughts, and there is a playfulness evident throughout that suggests a lightness of heart that moriyama lacks. not that either is better or worse for the comparison, but that they are just…different.

daido moriyama, fence, yokoto, japan, 1969

nobuyoshi araki

moriyama’s childhood memories are filled with visions of green jeeps from which chocolate and gum would be ejected into the air by passing GI’s; the smells of an abandoned rubber plant, to which he would clamber into alone and considered his thinking spot; and the “weary perversity” of the basetown that sat on the edge of his home, in which he would explore and form his own opinions about himself, japanese identity and the occupying army. his book memories of a stray dog includes not only his photos that he made when he returned as an adult to the (now abandoned) base towns of his youth, but wonderfully articulate and unforced writing about memory, photography and a desire to persist in the present–both through lived experience and through the language of photography.

people steadily lose the landscapes they have accumulated. it’s not likely that anyone can faithfully recall how scenes appeared ten or twenty years ago… i think people continue to live in the present because we forget most every little thing. the remembrances that sneak up on a tired soul may sometimes stir us, but there is no tomorrow in that… where in the world did the era beyond my memories and the people who lived in it disappear to? after time, which we can actually only see now in historical documents, there are memories we carry. after our time, what memories will be carried forth by the people who follow?
–memories of a stray dog

as i have been absorbing his words and his work, i find myself relegated to the most facile means at trying to breach cross-cultural understanding: compare and contrast. but still, one has to begin somewhere. how different is moriyama’s photographic project than such is conceived of by western minds! and not just in this body of work, not merely in this book or any other of his i may procure and read, but his life project, his set of philosophical questions he could no sooner undo or unask than he could change his dna. not to say that photographers in the west don’t have their own questions, but sometimes the questions are ignored, or heard/answered wrong, or that one gets distracted by other aspects of the art world.

for example: one is taught by practicing artists and in academia that it is extremely desirable to have a “project.” that you will, in fact, have many of them, and that they should be somehow connected. lauren greenfield’s girl culture; larry clark’s tulsa up through kids; joel sternfeld’s on this site, to mention a few that are well known. all of these works are polished and thought through, but where they fail is that that they are often not felt through and throughout. they become exercises, they become the finishing of a “project.” they are not chiefly concerned with discovery, but about confirming a bias or a prejudice, whether visual, cultural, psychological or all three at once. moriyama’s project is about exploring the gap between seeing and feeling, about a semantic divide that is both verbal and non-verbal. his is an investigation of self, but not for the reasons of western autobiography nor does it use its methodology. his questions and answers (and then the new questions that get asked in the face of those answers) are not of one book or project, but all of them: those made in the past, those being made now, in the present, and the ones that have yet to be asked, yet to be made.

i can’t help but think of rilke, and think it incredibly appropriate to apply to moriyama:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. and the point is, live everything. live the questions now. perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer…

his photographs ask over and over again: who am i in relation to this event, or this person? how is this moment unlike any other i have ever known, or will ever know? what else exists outside this view, the frame i may select, the things i am not photographing? can a photograph ever pretend to know any of this? can i?

moriyama’s influences include shomei tomatsu, william klein, ni√©pce, wegee, warhol, nakaji yasui and novelist osamu dazai. from my point-of-view, his inky blacks and grain remind me of bill brandt’s documentary work; his manic shooting reminds me of winogrand (with the important exception being that moriyama sees deeply into the ingredients of things, and winogrand sports in the surfaces); his need to mediate experiences through the camera reminds me of warhol (who spent the last years of his life interacting with people via his tape recorder or camera, but not directly). in one of the better reviews of his work i’ve come across, leo rubinfien writing in art in america said that:

moriyama’s best work everywhere implies a trauma that must have occurred just outside the limit of our vision, just before we get to the scene, or just beyond the reach of our memory. we feel that what we are getting now is its residual radiation.

so how are these two, daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki, even remotely related? one is full of pensive thought and writing, the other full of laughable soundbites. one sees the world in a series of caught moments, another carefully stages his. one predominately in black-and-white, the other predominately in color. moriyama’s photographs in moments feel full of existential dread, while araki’s are full of…what? existential excess? perhaps one of the easiest ways in would be to examine a subject both of them have trafficked in: the nude.

araki first became aware of moriyama’s work through a short-lived magazine project called provoke. the group’s last issue showcased moriyama’s work, and was published in 1970. araki, who was working uninspired at an advertising agency at the time, saw moriyama’s nudes and felt jealousy.

at the time, i was also thinking “photographey=eros” and that images which did not embrace the erotic were not qualified to be photos. moreover, i had the idea that photography was unavoidably associated with the concept of death, therefore, and eros which did not contain aspects of thanatos could not be the photographic expression of eros. that photo of moriyama’s seemed to represent exactly what i was feeling.
–interview moderated by akihito yasumi, 2003

moriyama’s nudes were many things at once: careful, respectful, moody, intimate and distant simultaneously. while araki has become famous for his erotic photos, they look nothing like moriyama’s and yet it seems for that difference in thought and approach were all the more fascinating to araki.

on the bed I, daido moriyama, tokyo, 1969.

araki later questioned moriyama as to why his nudes were either blurred or did not show the face, claiming that a nude photo of a woman should always show her face. moriyama replied that it had something to do with a “samurai’s tenderness,” meaning that he did not intend to brag about romantic conquests. was it a chide to a younger colleague, then, a judgement of what araki’s photos of the same genre seemed to be saying?

if it was, it hardly needed to be said, because araki is a living, breathing extroverted oedipal urge extroidinare. he says everything himself, playfully, before you can come out and accuse him with knives in your voice. his ridiculous exuberance takes all the meanness from you:

I‘ve been taking photographs since I came into this world. I was no sooner out of my mother’s womb, than I turned around and photographed her sex! Photography is the first thing I shall do after my reincarnation!

and, on the subject of ropes (for which he is famed):

Basically, I have never been interested in tying up the body of a model. What I was aiming at was the female heart. That was what I wanted to lay in chains. In the course of time, if I can put it this way, the models have tied themselves up, have bound themselves to me … I work using my entire bodily presence, I reproduce in my photos the space and the time between my models and myself … The camera is a kind of seismograph here…

rope impressions, nobuyoshi araki

when i first encountered araki i rolled my eyes. i did not think that there was anything beyond his surface voyeurism, and at best i found myself caught between amusement and feminist outrage. but then i questioned: what is it that offends me about his work? is it the subject matter? or is it the fact that it is so commercially successful? or, beyond that, is it that araki appears to have no questions at all?

I have nothing to say. There’s no particular message in my photos. The messages come from my subjects, men or women. The subjects will convey what there is to say. I have things to photograph, so I’ve nothing to express. Right now, I’m showing my enjoyment of life rather than the sadness of death. Some people I know say that life is sad. But today I think the opposite. Death is sadder.
–from an interview with j√©r√¥me sans .

from his own mouth. but can he trust what even he himself says?

it may be hard to believe it to look at his photos, but araki was married. to a woman who became his favorite and most studied model. he made a book of photographs of their honeymoon together, which is now shown alongside with the pictures of her illness and death (yoko died in 1990 of cancer, at 42). if araki has questions to answer, or questions he is avoiding, it is resoundingly in these photographs:

from a sentimental journey, taken on araki’s honeymoon

yoko in the bath

in sharp contrast to the thousands of other photographs of women araki has taken, the study he made of his wife over the course of their relationship says something much more than can be carefully arranged with ropes, props, leering and provocation. it is a photographic conversation between two people, and it is a document of feeling and relation to feeling. and, more than that perhaps: the failure to completely realize love in a marriage. or of the failure of photography to communicate either love or lack of love. araki has said of this work and of his wife:

Maybe I only had a relationship with her as a photographer, not as a partner. If I hadn’t documented her death, both the description of my state of mind and my declaration of love would have been incomplete. I found consolation in unmasking lust and loss, by staging a bitter confrontation between symbols. After Yoko’s death, I didn’t want to photograph anything but life – honestly. Yet every time I pressed the button, I ended up close to death, because to photograph is to stop time. I want to tell you something, listen closely: photography is murder.

quite different from barthes’ assertion that death is imminent in photography–araki says that photography is death itself, and that the act of photographing is to cut oneself off from life… or at least, that seems to be what he is saying there. at that moment.

which leads me to question: which is more accurate? the photographer who asserts with halting questions, who is careful and deliberate in his thought and actions? or is it the one who is full of contradictions, denials, self-wrought conundrums? is it better to observe and keep the world at a distance, or is it better to insinuate oneself in the drama? better to know or to laugh?

so many questions. and i’m still reading and learning and looking. the fury of these images and concerns has been consuming, and i should learn to not be stymied by being stunned. writing more as i am learning more. and of late, i’ve been loving what i’ve been learning.

some books to check out:

memories of a dog, by daido moriyama

daido moriyama (contains the interview between araki and moriyama)

phaidon 55 series: daido moriyama (i love this series of books, and this is a great collection for cheap)

black sun: the eyes of four, by mark holborn (an amazing collection of four seminal japanese photographers: shomei tomatsu, eikoh hosoe, masahisa fukase and daido moriyama)

araki (supposedly the definitive work, weighing in at 600 pages and a mere $2000, take a gander if you can find a copy)

tokyo nostalgia, by nobuyoshi araki

viaggio sentimentale (an italian catalogue of a show araki did in prato, a good compendium of his life’s work, at a fraction of the “complete works” price.)

death: elegy, by nobuyoshi araki (i haven’t seen this yet, but i am dying to)

catch and other stories, by kenzaburo oe (this has been great companion reading while looking at moriyama’s photos of military bases)

6 Comments

  1. ruzz wrote:

    This post raised many questions in my own mind, and it was refreshing to see you hash so much out in seeming real time. As well as a very good introduction to two very interesting photographers and characters.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2004 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Jim Casper wrote:

    Thank you for this eloquent insight, report and commentary. It’s hard to crack the alluring, seemingly endless body of images from Daido Moriyama. It’s so much more than high contrast “dark” images, but until your essay, it was hard for me to get further than that superficial appreciation. Your observations and questions have lit a fire.

    Saturday, September 18, 2004 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  3. Bjorke wrote:

    Have you see “Arakimentary”? Moriyama appears in it as well to speak about his friend.

    There was a Japanese docudrama made about the life and death of Araki Yoko. DVDs pop up regularly on EBay, as do copies of Araki’s “Sentimental Journey” book.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2004 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Nick wrote:

    i first saw moriyamas photographs a few years ago and they put me at unease immediately. the images themselves are often uneasy, but perhaps it was the attempt to understand them that seemed most disturbing.

    since, i have attempted to learn and understand as much as i can of his work and its source. intrigued by both image, question and message.

    im lucky enough to have met with moriyama san a couple of times. he is a gentle and kind man,,who smokes many cigarettes!

    your writing is very enlightening, i thnak you for helping with my understanding.

    Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  5. Tarkovsky once said that it is impossible to relay one’s personal experience over to a viewer, audience, or the next person. I think it’s impossible to sense from anyone’s photography anything but the reading of ourselves upon their images.

    I like the fact that Araki has images of his wife. His bondage stuff doesn’t look any different from anyone else’s bondage pics. They look like miscroscope slides of scientific studies. However, Araki’s other stuff is F-A-N-T-A-B-U-L-O-U-S! The street portraits, the flowers, the food, the self portraits. In my opinion, it’s the non-bondage stuff that really redeems his pop appeal.

    I am struck by the sense that there’s a serious inspired genius side to Araki, and the side that just shoots the pornos to support the serious inspired side. I could be wrong. Maybe he’s just a genius dirty old man.

    Araki’s embrace of disintegrating flowers is a thing of marvelous beauty. I love Mapplethorpe’s pistils, but his fear of their degenerating state (which in itself is a process that gives beauty to living, what silence is to sound, and stillness is to movement) effecctively shields us from the complete picture that is the momentary joy to living and blossoming.

    Thursday, October 5, 2006 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Ivo Kwee wrote:

    What a great essay about two great photographers I deeply admire. Particularly I liked your insight about western photography too much relying on “projects”, instead of Daido and Araki that continually “live” their photography almost (or really?) as an obsession. Thanks.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

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