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April 06, 2004

Daido Moriyama's Radical B&W, and Shrink Art

The battle to find good black and white online continues, and I've already provided links in previous posts...and there's even more to be considered if you don't want to fuss with tonality and presentation. There's long been a whole subculture of photographers using very high speed (1600, 3200 and even pushed to 6400) black and white film to capture night scenes, concerts, and indoor and outdoor candid photography in general. Perhaps that subculture is declining with the advent of digital (and its relatively smooth high ISO capabilities up to 1600), and the grain and extreme contrast that's characteristic of high speed B&W can be hard to scan and get online to look presentable -- the clumpy grain for Kodak Tmax 3200, for example, is atmospheric with certain B&W prints, but it tends to look hideous when scanned.

But there's an immediacy and a sense of drama to the "found" nature of the best high speed, low light B&W, and the grain and contrast can of course be employed for aesthetic effect. One of the imagemakers I've encountered -- in book form and online -- who's used that immediacy to great effect is the Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. The best introduction to him is the small pocket sized book put out by Phaidon as part of their 55 series of photo books featuring accomplished photographers. The essay by Kazuo Nishii and his comments on Moriyama's photographs are excellent, and the printing quality for a $7.95 book is exemplary.

Moriyama is part of a generation of Japanese photographers that came to prominence in the 1960s, with the most notorious and famous of them being Nobuyoshi Araki. Moriyama is far from a household name and didn't seek the spotlight the way Araki did, but his photographic style was bold, harsh, aggressive, and even today, nearly 40 years later, his work looks distinctly modern *and* postmodern. He used the harsh highlights, intense shadows, and streaky grain of high speed B&W with Weegee like intensity in some images to convey a strongly melodramatic mood; in other photographs, the same effects might be used to much more abstract (yet still in-your-face) effect. He photographed at night from moving cars, rephotographed sensationalistic images from tabloids and public safety posters, and captured various aspects of night life (performers, prostitutes, demonstrators) in a much more vivid and artful way than the photojournalists of the time.

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Daido Moriyama images circa 1967

Moriyama's work was at its most vital and anarchic in the 1960s, though he has continued to shoot through to the present, and from the mid 1980s forward, he has been the subject of an increasing number of retrospectives. The website devoted to his work is highly recommended -- much of it is in Japanese, but it's easy to navigate, and because the black and white work plumbs extremes of tonality, it presents well online (though B&W zone system purists have probably figured out by now that what they'll see won't be real pleasing). There are three galleries, with the work becoming increasingly experimental (broadly speaking) in the second and third galleries. (the first gallery, entitled "Paris" has its moments, but it is larded with a few too many reflection images for my taste).

The book format that the galleries are presented in can barely contain the energy of some of his images...streaks of light, reflections, inky shadows and traces of film sprockets all compete for attention at times and seem to burst from the spine of the "virtual book":

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The best description of the vitality that characterizes Moriyama's work comes from the man himself:

"I brush aside words and ideas, and focus on photography as a means of expressing a message that is both physiological and phenomenological...my approach is very simple -- there is no artistry, I just shoot freely. For example, most of my snapshots I take from a moving car, or while running, without a finder, and in those instances one might say that I am taking the pictures more with my body than with my eyes...photos are often out of focus, streaky, warped, etc...but if you think about it, a normal human being willin one day receive an infinite number of images, and some are focused open, other are barely seen out of the corner of one's eye." (excerpted from "A Dialogue with Photography")

Moriyama seems to be conducting some of his latest explorations with low-tech digital cameras in color, if the "Diary" section of his website is any indication. Though the images look somewhat generic without benefit of understanding the Japanese text on the website, there are a few images that indicate that Moriyama still has an eye for the curious and sensationalistic, though in a much more subdued manner than his peak years of the '60s and '70s.

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Moriyama color image from Diary

Not all of Moriyama's lurid and occasionally morbid expressionism comes across online -- for that, the printed page and selection of images in the 55 book remains more effective. His work implied the presence of inner demons that provoked critics to inquire about his mental state at times. Which provokes this tangent: Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice recently wrote a wonderful review of interiors photographer Shellburne Thurber's latest photographs of psychiatrists' offices and the art in them, including a funny-touching meditation on Saltz's own reaction to a Jasper Johns painting in his former shrink's office. I wonder how patients would react to seeing a Moriyama image in their shrink's office...a bit much, perhaps.

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Comments

check out this guys b/w work - some pretty amazing work there:
http://www.markushartel.com/blog

Posted by: S Schwarz at Aug 16, 2006 1:56:24 PM