I remember the first time I stumbled upon Daido Moriyama’s work via word-of-mouth by a friend. I remembered how my friend told me how he was a genius, and how incredible his black and white work was.
When I first looked at Daido’s work, I simply didn’t “get it.” His shots looked like a bunch of random and unintentional snapshots. The majority of Daido’s photos weren’t very interesting to me and seemed to be quite boring.
However over time, Daido’s work has grown on me. I still don’t think he is the best street photographer in the world, but I love his unique vision in photography (similarly to William Klein, he went against the grain of tradition in photography). Not only that, but Daido inspires me for his curiosity in life
and only sees photography as a way to document how amazing the world truly is.
I know you guys must be sick of my list posts by now, but I prefer to write in that manner as it is easier to organize my thoughts. So with no further adieu, here are some lessons that Daido Moriyama has taught me about street photography.
1. Make the camera your slave
Many street photographers are obsessed with cameras and gear. We often talk about the difference between shooting with a DSLRs vs rangefinders, the difference of using zoom lenses vs prime lenses, and even the technical settings attached to it.
However at the end of the day, photography should be about taking photos– not just obsessing over cameras. Araki, one of Daido’s colleagues (and also one of Japan’s most infamous photographers) talks about how Daido made the camera his slave in the documentary: “Near Equal” (2001):
“The photographer had been a slave of the camera for a long time. Good camera, good lens, Leica, etc. These were the masters of a photographer. But in a way, Daido Moriyama is a photographer who started to make the camera his own slave. Photography is not about the camera.
Of course we need the camera. If you want to write a romantic love letter, we need some tool to write it with. But anything– a pencil or a ball pen is fine. It is like this in photography, and he is a pioneer for that. (Araki 2001)
So if you don’t already know, Daido is quite famous for using most Ricoh film compact cameras for his 50+ years of shooting on the streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo. He shoot mostly black and white film, but has actually moved onto digital recently.
Daido expands on why he prefers to use compact cameras compared to big and bulky SLR’s in his documentary, “Near Equal“:
“If you use a SLR, you see things like this [holds camera to eye]. And when you do this, you want to have perfect focus.
The moment which you want to capture does not fit your feeling, if you do this. If you are using a compact camera, it is simple.
[While holding SLR to eye] Also furthermore, if you [use a SLR in front of your eyes] many people in Shinjuku, people turn their faces, or flee.”
Certainly the benefit of shooting with a compact camera in the streets is the fact you don’t have to always worry about the camera settings. You can simply point, click, and let the camera do the rest (autofocus, exposure, etc). According to Daido, it allows you to focus more on the photography and the feeling of the moment– rather than fumbling around with settings on the camera.
Not only that, but another huge benefit of shooting with a compact camera is the fact that it tends to be a lot less threatening than a big SLR. It is small, inconspicuous, has a quiet shutter sound, and looks more like a toy than a “serious camera.”
So how did Daido even discover the Ricoh compact film camera? I think this snippet from the “Near Equal” documentary shows how little he cares about the camera, and more about the photography:
[Interviewee on Daido]: “I think he basically never bought his own camera. He basically borrowed a camera from someone. And it somehow becomes his own camera, or he got one from someone.”
Daido: [On the Ricoh] I got it as a gift, but when I used it, it was unexpectedly good. Any camera is fine. It is only the means of taking a photo.
Daido certainly isn’t the type of photographer who tested out dozens of cameras, lenses, and configurations. He just took the first camera he was given, and went out and photographed what he found interesting.
Don’t worry about your camera so much. Just go out and shoot.
2. Wander the streets like a stray dog
One of the photos that Daido is most famous for is a stark photograph of a stray dog, looking right at him with insidious eyes. This is what Daido had to say about the photograph in an interview with Tate: “Daido Moriyama: In Pictures” (2012):
“I took this photograph when I went to Misawa in Aomori to work for a camera magazine. I stepped out of the hotel in the morning to go out for a photo shoot, the dog was just there. So I immediately took several pictures.
I realized later in the darkroom when I printed the image how amazing the dog’s expression is. Snapshots are all about an instant moment and this dog instantly became a part of me. I am actually honored to be compared with that dog.”
If you watch the documentaries of Daido Moriyama shooting the streets of Shinjuku, that is exactly what he looks like: a stray dog. He wanders the streets for hours on end, with no real destination in mind. He goes into the back alleys that most people are afraid to go, and photographs whatever he finds interesting. In his interview with Tate he talks about how he wanders the streets:
“I basically walk quite fast. I like taking snapshots in the movement of both myself and the outside world. When I walk around I probably look like a street dog because after walking around the main roads, I keep wandering around the back streets.”
If you use the “stray dog” analogy– you can see how his senses are even animalistic. He talks about the power of smell in a recent short documentary on him in Hong Kong: “Daido Moriyama – The Mighty Power” (2012):
“There is a mighty power in photography. And especially overwhelming in its expressiveness. I love to observe the people in cities, in which an uncanny scent floats. I love to burrow in mysterious lanes. To detect the unusual scent guided by my own sense of smell.
When it comes to street photography, serendipity is key. Don’t feel that you always have to have a destination in mind when you are out in the streets.
I think this especially applies when it comes to traveling and shooting street photography. If we ever visit a foreign country, we feel obligated to shoot in certain landmarks of the city (Eiffel tower anyone?) However in my experience it is the touristy parts of a city which are the worst to photograph– and it is the places off-the-beaten-path which make the most interesting photographs.
So apply this “stray dog” mentality to yourself. Be unburdened by a goal or a destination. Just go where your curiosity leads you, and don’t forget to take photos along the way.
3. Look for possibilities
One of the things that really touched me about Daido and his work is that even at his age (he is 73) but still photographs fervently. In his interview with Tate he shares his desire to continue photographing:
“My friends or critics are often surprised and ask me why I never got bored walking around for over 50 years. But I never get bored. I often hear it is said that people, even photographers, do their best work when they are in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m 73 now. But I could never see the city with an old man’s eyes, or as if I understood everything.
Everyone has desires. The quality and the volume of those desires change with age. But that desire is always serious and real. Photography is an expression of those desires. So that way of thinking or speaking is nonsense to me. Completely meaningless. That’s how it is.
What amazes Daido most about the world? The fact that it is limitless and how he can discover his own desires through the city:
“I have always felt that the world is an erotic place. As I walk through it my senses are reaching out. And I am drawn to all sorts of things. For me cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires. And as I search for my own desires within them, I slice into time, seeing the moment. That’s the kind of camera work I like.”
So why does Daido prefer to shoot in cities? He explains his allure of Shinjuku in Tokyo, his favorite place to shoot in the world:
I see Shinjunku as a stadium of people’s desires. I like the intensity of the city’s character when its overcrowded and jumbled thoughts and desires are whirling. I can’t photograph anything without a city. I am definitely addicted to cities.”
In “The Mighty Power” Daido shares more of his fascination and passion about photographing in sprawling urban cities. He cites one of the best parts of shooting in a city is the fact how the possibilities of photographing are limitless:
“Every city, no matter how it looks is a work of art. Fifty years have lapsed and with the thousands of photographs I have taken, I still find photography amazing. There are still millions of things and people that are worthy to be shot.
There are very few street photographers who have been shooting as long as Daido (50+ years). Even Henri Cartier-Bresson gave up photography after ~40 years of photographing (from 1930-early 1970’s).
Many street photographers I know tend to get bored of photographing where they live (myself included). We like to always think that the “grass is greener on the other side” and that where we live is boring and cliche.
How does Daido manage to photograph the streets of Tokyo (and more specifically Shinjuku) for over 50 years? The secret is that he doesn’t focus on the shortcomings of the place, but rather the possibilities.
One of the beauties of street photography is that regardless of where you photograph (whether it be a suburb, a mall, a city-center, or even a beach) the moments which you photograph will never be the same. You will never get the same exact person (wearing the same outfit) in the same exact spot, with the same exact light, and the same exact expression or look in their face.
Always look for the silver lining in street photography. Another secret to not getting bored with shooting street photography in your neighborhood can be from this quote by Steve Jobs: “Stay hungry, stay foolish“.
Don’t settle with your photography and feel that you have already done everything in your power. Strive to take better photographs, to explore more, and to find the nuances in the city or place in which you live.
4. Shoot black & white for the meaning, not the aesthetic
When you look at street photography, the majority of it is in black and white. Why is that? Well I would surmise that contemporary street photographers love the sense of nostalgia associated with black and white. After all, all of the masters shot in black and white. But then again, that is all they had.
Now we have the option of shooting in black and white or color. Yet, most street photographers I have seen gravitate still more towards black and white.
Daido has shot the vast majority of his street photography in black and white. Why? It wasn’t merely just for the aesthetic. Rather, he tried to find something deeper in meaning through his monochromatic images:
“The reason why I think black and white photography is erotic is completely due to my body’s instinctive response. Monochrome has stronger elements of abstraction or symbolism. This is perhaps an element of taking you to another place. Black and white has that physical effect on me. That’s just the way I respond to things.”
We see the world in color, so black & white is a departure from that. It tends to be more abstract, symbolic, and helps us see the world in a unique and novel way.
In an interview with Aperture: “Daido Moriyama: The Shock From Outside” (2012) he talks about another reason he enjoys shooting in black and white, which is to capture the erotic nature of the world:
“One distinction I can make—I’ve written about this in my essays: black-and-white photography has an erotic edge for me, in a broad sense. Color doesn’t have that same erotic charge. It doesn’t have so much to do with what is being photographed; in any black-and-white image there is some variety of eroticism. If I am out wandering and I see photographs hung on the walls of a restaurant, say, if they are black and white, I get a rush! It’s really a visceral response. I haven’t yet seen a color photograph that has given me shivers. That is the difference between the two.
However this is not to say that shooting in color doesn’t interest Daido. On the contrary, now that he is shooting digitally, he finds the idea to be quite exciting and challenging:
“My interest in color is increasing. Sometimes when I see one of my black-and-white photographs, I think to myself: “That’s a Daido Moriyama image.” Whereas color work seems wholly different to me—still, there is something good about it. So what interests me is seeing my own work differently: the new, vague feeling of accepting the color work as my own. That is where I am now. At that vague, flickering stage.”
I think when you make the conscious decision to either shoot in black and white or color, you should do it purposefully.
Based on my personal experiences, I have found that when I am shooting in black and white or color
I see the world in a different way.
For example, when I shot exclusively in black & white, I would look for shapes, forms, shadows, light, expression, and moods. However now that I am working exclusively in color, I look for bright hues, contrasts of different colors, vivid advertisements, and signs of consumerism.
Don’t simply shoot in black & white or color for the aesthetic– but do it for the emotion and meaning.
5. The photos you take are a self-portrait of yourself, not others
The term “snapshot” is often looked down by photographers. It is thought of being unintentional, amateurish, and uninteresting.
However Daido loves the concept of the snapshot, and enjoys the casual approach to photography:
“Nowadays, people take photos casually. Especially of their daily lives. The casual attitude toward photography is the same as mine. There is nothing right or wrong.”
“…The only difference is that I use my own way to record my life, while they use theirs.“
Not only that, but Daido is fascinated with the idea of having his viewers be active participants in looking at his photographs. He wants his photographs to resonate with his viewers (and with himself):
“I think that the most important thing that photography can do is to relate both the photographer and the viewer’s memories. At first sight a photograph looks straightforward as it slices off a scene or a moment in time. But the images that photography captures are actually ambiguous. And it’s because of this ambiguity that I like photography.”
“At the very beginning a photo is produced from a photographer’s specific perspective. However, when it is presented in front of different viewers various perspectives will be developed by viewers, which will enrich the content of the photo.“
Daido is also very aware of the fleeting nature of moments, and values the ability for the camera to record the present. Not only that, but he also wants to preserve his feelings through his photographs as well:
“Photography is the capture of the very present moment. It is meaningless to regret in the future what you’ve missed. Therefore taking a photo of the present is to preserve it. That is the essence of photography. Your feeling is always a reflection of the photo you produce.
The past cannot be captured by the present. And the future also cannot be captured by the present. The present can only be captured in the moment.”
Don’t feel so obliged to take street photography so seriously all the time. At the end of the day, it is less about the people you capture on the streets– and more of a self-reflection of who you are as a person and how you see the world.
Take a casual approach to street photography by always carrying your camera with you everywhere you go, and take snapshots of whatever you find interesting.
If anyone ever calls your photos “snapshots”
don’t get offended. Rather, revel in it as I feel that the beauty of a snapshot is how open and democratic it is. Often times photographers can be quite pretentious about their work. The snapshot is the celebration of living and experiencing life without prejudice and showing a part of who we are.
Also know that photography is all about discovering who you are as a person. I often look at the work of photographers and can see straight through them. To generalize, I look at a lot of street photographers whose work is quite dark, grim, and depressing. I am sure this is how they see the world, and have a much more cynical view of society.
Other street photographers can take colorful and vivid photographs that celebrate the joy and beauty of life. This can also be a reflection of themselves as a person.
If I explore my own photographs, I would say they say a lot of who I am as well. I studied sociology as an undergraduate student, and it is how I tend to see and view the world. I also look at my photographs, and although I do have some humor an fun in my shots- the majority of my shots tend to be quite sad, depressing, and cynical of the world.
When I studied sociology, I tended to see more of the negatives of individuals in society. Things I hated about the world: consumerism, the deception of mass media, and this never-ending thirst of power and money. These are also the themes that I see developing through my work, especially in my “Dark Skies over Tokyo” project, my “Korea: the Presentation of Self” project, as well as my new “Suits” project.
So at the end of the day, photograph who you are and also try to get your viewers to engage in your photographs. Invite them in, introduce them to how you see the world, and hopefully something will also resonate with them as well.
Daido may not be the best street photographer in the world, but his experience and wisdom is definitely worth exploring. He is very non-pretentious when it comes to his photography (which I love). He takes on a casual approach with his simple compact camera, and roams the street like a stray dog
sniffing out moments that he finds interesting.
What I find the most inspirational is at the end of the day, he is not so interest in taking photographs as wandering and experiencing life.
Videos on Daido Moriyama
Below are some videos I recommend watching on Daido Moriyama:
Daido Moriyama: In Pictures. Produced by Tate (2012)
Probably the best documentary I have seen on Daido. Very well-directed, beautiful cinematography, and gives you a good sense of Daido’s philosophies on street photography at the moment:
Daido Moriyama: Near Equal Moriyama (2001)
An older documentary on Daido Moriyama, around 1 hour and 20 minutes long. A bit slow-paced and dry, but it is probably the most comprehensive look into the life and work of Daido. If you have some free time, definitely recommend kicking back with a coffee or a beer and giving it a watch.
Daido Moriyama – The Mighty Power (2012)
A short documentary made on Daido while he visited Hong Kong last year. It is quite stylish, and also has some good nuggets of Wisdom from Daido himself.
Books by Daido Moriyama
Daido Moriyama: The World through My Eyes (2010)
If you are going to just get one book on Daido, this is the book to get. It has a solid collection of Daido’s best work, and also has a nice interview in the beginning of the book. Reasonably priced at ~35 USD.
This is the most recent book of Daido Moriyama, published by the Tate. It is the only full survey of Moriyama’s work fully in English, and was made to coincide with the William Klein + Daido Moriyama show at the Tate Modern.
A very affordable book at around ~27 USD.
Daido Moriyama: Labyrinth (2012)
This is one of Daido’s most fascinating books, as it includes contact sheets of some of his most famous images. I make it a priority to buy any photo book which includes contact sheets, as it is a way to get inside the mind of a photographer.
For example, one thing I learned through the book is how Daido always takes multiple shots of a subject or a scene, playing with the angles, composition, framing, as well as with and without flash.
Highly recommend it, and worth the investment at ~55 USD.
Contacts by Daido