Article as first published on Blogcritics.org.
Daido Moriyama, along with Nobuyoshi Araki, was part of a new wave of Japanese artists to break out of photographic traditions in the late ’60s. For Moriyama, these traditions included things like focus and a level camera; his high-contrast, grainy black and white images are pure street photography, but he’s just as likely to print images that are all blur and texture as he is to point his lens on disaffected youth and the banalities of everyday life. Whatever the subject, or lack thereof, his best work is full of energy, and pushes the limits of the form and what constitutes photography.
Moriyama has largely avoided the media, but that changes with the feature-length documentary Stray Dog of Tokyo (a reference to the title of one of his books), which includes extensive interviews with Moriyama as well as with the often hilarious Araki, and Japanese magazine editor and photography critic Kazuo Nishii. More intriguing for photographers, like myself, a single camcorder follows Moriyama on a photo shoot wandering around the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, not unlike the titular stray. The camera also follows Moriyama to the darkroom, though he shares none of his developing formulas, perhaps not even to himself. Nishii recalls an exhibit which required an enlargement of one of Moriyama’s prints, but after a photo lab was unable to replicate Moriyama’s print, a consultation with the artist revealed that he himself couldn’t remember how he printed that one.
Photographers like me will also be curious to know what equipment he uses. Araki explains that his friend almost always ends up borrowing a camera, which then becomes his. Moriyama’s first was a toy camera made of Bakelite (the rugged substance that makes up any number of Brownies and other plastic cameras), and has always felt that you can make a good picture with anything. Then again, the 35mm point-and-shoot he uses on screen appears to be a Ricoh GR1s — no Leica, but not exactly a cheap camera either. But the small, wide-angle compact is perfect for his “no-finder” aesthetic; instead of looking through the viewfinder, he looks in one direction while pointing his camera in the other – from his chest, from his side, even from below his waist. In this manner, the wide-angle lens is likely to pick up whatever it was in that direction caught his eye, be it a businessman out on the town or a group of schoolgirls.
Stray Dog of Toyko also shows Moriyama shooting his very first digital still and video footage – the documentary was shot around 2000-2001, when digital was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. The results are funny, and, despite high-resolution color, recognizably Moriyama. But don’t think that he’s abandoned the analog. In addition to a steady stream of monographs, Moriyama has lent his brand name to a pocket-sized toy camera that uses 110mm film and is packaged with a small print of his signature stray dog.
In a perfect world, a documentary about Moriyama would be shot in grainy, hi-con 35mm film – something along the lines of Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s now classic documentary of the defeated and soon to be dead Chet Baker. Stray Dog was shot on video, but is edited well enough to rise well above the usual level of documentary as DVD extra. Students of photography and observers of modern Japan alike will learn a lot from 84 minutes with Daido Moriyama.