The Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama celebrates his 79th birthday on October 10 but you would never know it looking at his recent photographs currently up at Lurhing Augustine’s Bushwick space. Best known for an “are-bure-boke” (grainy, blurry, and out of focus) aesthetic dating from the Provoke era, the installation mainly offers shiny brightness in grids of large-scale color photographs taken in Moriyama’s usual Tokyo haunts of Shinjuku and Ikebekuro. The usual Moriyama urban themes are present, by now almost likes old friends to Moriyama’s fans: mannequins and window displays, still jolting despite their allusions to surrealism and Atget; aimless looking youth; ponytails, close-up, usually from behind; narrow streets and shop signs; auto-portraits (his reflection, shadow); and photographs of posters and advertisements (i.e., photographs of photographs).
Only a few of these thirty or so color images are strong enough to stand on their own but together the impact is one of honesty (as opposed to artlessness) and be patient because the assemblage becomes kind of hypnotic, like a photobook that you keep flipping back and forth in while jamming a finger in the gutter to mark your progress.
Per the gallery, “Tokyo Color highlights Moriyama’s long engagement with color photography, featuring a slideshow of his early explorations with color film, alongside a series of his recent color prints. While best known for his high-contrast black and white images, color photography has been an integral part of his practice since the 1970s. Moriyama says, ‘The black and white tells about my inner worlds, my emotions and deep feelings that I feel every day walking through the streets of Tokyo or other cities, as a vagabond aimlessly. The color describes what I meet without any filters, and I like to record the instant for the way it looks to me. The first one is rich in contrast, is harsh and fully reflects my solitary nature. The second one is polite, gentle, as I set myself towards the world.’”
Where three of four gallery walls are devoted to the color work, the fourth showcases a B&W series called Tights that Moriyama started in the 1980s. Here he photographs, up close, a woman’s legs in fishnets. This selection of Tights — taken in 2017 — does not seem to be as abstracted as what I recall (fleetingly) seeing in his photobooks. The framing, though up-close, shows as much leg as fishnet pattern and is, in that sense, warmer, gentler.
The biggest surprise in this show is the one that gets a passing mention in the gallery’s write-up— a slideshow of Moriyama’s early explorations with color film. The slides are projected onto a screen that hangs about mid-gallery, diagonal to the walls. On it are projected faded-out images of streetscapes, landscapes, still-lives and nudes, one after another, never seeming to repeat, at a stately pace and in silence. The overall effect is depressing (compared to the color prints and Tights) in subject matter and tone (rained out streets, grey skies, brown grass) but riveting because it is in this relentlessness that Moriyama’s magic is most evident: these aren’t his well-known masterpieces or greatest hits but, just the same, they are so good and, seen en masse one after another, he makes it look so easy to convey strong emotion using subject matter that happens to be at hand. It is as if they reside in a moody emotional space equidistant between Moriyama’s “inner” black and white world and his “unfiltered” present-day color.
At 79 years old Moriyama shows no signs of slowing down or losing his touch. For our sake, may he have many more birthdays to come.