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Blind alleys: Daido Moriyama is a master of street photography

Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama worries that his chosen art form may be going out of style. But that hasn't dampened the 75-year-old's enthusiasm, writes Edmund Lee

 

DAIDO MORIYAMA has explored the streets and alleys of Japan for five decades in search of inspiration for his next shot. When he pauses to contemplate the state of street photography in this digital age, the iconic photographer, who was born in Osaka in 1938, sounds like he's having a hard time deciding if his craft should count as a form of fine art.

"There will be fewer street photographers as technology evolves," Moriyama says through an interpreter when we meet at his solo show "Searching Journeys", a decades-spanning survey of his blurred, grainy and out-of-focus records of urban life in post-war Japan, often created from slanted angles.

Much of Moriyama's body of black-and-white photography - which is not immune to the occasional sordid image - was shot in the infamous red-light district Shinjuku in Tokyo, where he has lived since 1961. It's as much an artistic statement as it is a silent tribute to the outcasts, strippers and entertainers from the area that populated his first photo book, Japan: A Photo Theatre (1968).

"Photography has changed and has entered the field of art, but there aren't many people like me who are strictly doing street shooting now. I was hoping I could encourage more young people to follow my path, but unfortunately it hasn't happened. I suppose people today prefer to do something that's more fancy or trendy," he says.

Moriyama's desire to motivate a new generation of street photographers may stem from his own initiation into the art through the works of the American-born French artist William Klein. At the age of 17, Moriyama was already confident in his artistic talent, something that was confirmed by a brief engagement in the field of commercial design. "But once I was inspired by photography, I just didn't want to do anything else," he says.

Myriad influences have contributed to his signature style. Moriyama says he was particularly impressed by Klein's photographs of New York's street scenes: "Klein ignored the entire general theory," he says. "It was totally 'off'. There are no rules, no logic. And that's what I was most strongly inspired by."

Moriyama initially found it difficult to determine if he had chosen the right photographic approach for the audience of his time - or maybe that was the point. "I must be honest with you - there were very few positive responses in those days," he says of the local reception to his photography.

"My work was the total opposite of what was valued at the time. My photos were all blurred, and the contrast was too strong. I didn't have a positive reputation back then."

But if Moriyama was ever looking for vindication for his idiosyncratic style, redemption arrived in October 2012, when a three-month joint retrospective exhibition with William Klein opened to an admiring public at London's Tate Modern.

While Klein is a decade older and was already an established figure when Moriyama began, the junior photographer says he feels like he has "finally caught up with" Klein, with his interpreter adding that it's a very Japanese expression.

"I was very pleased to have the opportunity to show with Klein," says Moriyama. "There are certain parts of myself that I see in Klein; I see myself in him personality-wise. I was inspired by him as a young photographer, and now I'm enjoying the contrast [in our works]. While I'm strictly about photography, Klein also works in films and painting."

Over the decades, Moriyama's career as a street photographer has overcome obstacles both internal - he felt so lost at one time that he resorted to "destroying photography" with his 1972 book Farewell Photography - and external, in terms of the shift towards digital and the invention of smartphones. He has little interest in the technological revolution, and confesses that he misses the time spent in a darkroom processing photos.

"It's very difficult to show originality or express the photographer's personality in street shooting," he says.

"Society is becoming stricter with privacy issues when it comes to taking pictures on the streets. Maybe it's a reason why it's becoming harder to be a street photographer.

"Street shooting is actually an easy way to document an era. I hope more photographers will go into it," says Moriyama, who explains that his camera "is not a Nikon-style one with huge lenses. It's not often that people notice I'm taking photos. I'm like a pickpocket."

Judging by the unbridled enthusiasm he displays in our conversation, it appears unlikely that Moriyama, 75, will come to a dead end like the one he encountered in the early 1970s. "I have a passion and desire for everything," he says.

"I think the secret to taking interesting photos is to realise that there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Every day is different and everything is extraordinary."

edmund.lee@scmp.com

 

Searching Journeys , Simon Lee Gallery, 3/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-7pm. Ends May 7. Inquiries: 2801 6252

 

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