The philosopher and
Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki
essay by Stacy Oborn
...but don't you think that using a flash in the American fashion is also
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?
Yes. Envy, possessiveness, and jealousy, followed by violence which is
engendered by these emotions.
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 a lot on two seminal figures of modern Japanese
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 photography 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
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 base town 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, Niépce,
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, Was also thinking "photography=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
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 judgment of what Araki's photos of the same genre seemed to be
If it was, it hardly needed to be said, because Araki is a living, breathing
extroverted oedipal urge extraordinare. 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
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 Jérôme 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:
of a Dog, by Daido Moriyama
Moriyama (contains the interview between Araki and Moriyama)
55 series: Daido Moriyama (I love this series of books, and
this is a great collection for cheap)
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)
(supposedly the definitive work, weighing in at 600 pages and a
mere $2000, take a gander if you can find a copy)
Nostalgia, by Nobuyoshi Araki
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)
Elegy, by Nobuyoshi Araki (I haven't seen this yet, but I am
and other stories, by Kenzaburo Oe (this has been great companion
reading while looking at Moriyama's photos of military bases)
About the author: Stacy Oborn
is the founder and author of one of the most thoughtful and fascinating
blogs about photography that I have discovered: the
space in between. She earned an MFA in photography from
Columbia College in Chicago.