JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted/unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are digital gelatin silver prints, made in 2017. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×10 to 60×44 inches (or reverse), with the tall panels sized at roughly 60×20 inches. No edition size information was provided, although Moriyama’s work has often been printed in open editions. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Apparently Daido Moriyama doesn’t like springtime. While the annual arrival of the cherry blossoms in Japan is celebrated by most as a joyous natural ritual, for the noted Japanese photographer, “the cherry blossoms are but a terrible specter, a pathogenic disease upon the Japanese people.” He goes on to write that “if I try and search for words to describe the total endlessness of looking up from beneath a cherry tree in full bloom, I only find my mood to grow darker.” That psychological darkness permeates the range of cherry blossom images in this show, turning the delicately elegant sprays of pink and white we have come to expect into something altogether more ominous and apocalyptic.
Moriyama has approached the clichéd subject with remarkable inventiveness, exploiting extremes of contrast and texture to pull the images away from the obvious and make them his own. In some cases, he has allowed the city to intervene, framing dark towers looming above soft pillowed treetops or using the pattern of chain link fence to forcibly interrupt an all-over dappling of fallen snow-like blossoms. The river canals that run through the city also provide contrasts of concrete and water, Moriyama using a steep angle to make a textural connection between the blossoms and the frothy white current. And a gloomy roadside image seems to dissipate before our eyes, the blossoms, the road, and the murky gray sky merging into one grainy are bure boke maelstrom.
Closer in, Moriyama gets more Impressionistic, using the similarities between the enlarged grain of the images and the blurred white forms of the flowers to break down the scenes further. Petals on the ground (or floating on black water) are encouraged to dissolve into pinpricks and cosmic swirls, the rough grain of the images mixing with the black and white spotting in a Pointillist-like effect. When Moriyama looks upward into the enveloping canopy of the trees, the dark branches become calligraphic, slashing across the fields of cropped bumpy whiteness. And a self-portrait shadow is cast across one composition, adding yet another layer of deep blackness (and personal melancholy) to the mottled surfaces.
More striking are Moriyama’s experiments with tall, scroll-like prints. These vertical panoramas allow the photographer to capture both the gestural sweep of the branches as they sinuously cascade toward the ground and the sparkling masses of overfilled textural whiteness. The compositional space in these pictures encourages the black lines of the branches to elongate downward, in a few cases, creating drooping lines that fall like dark rain. In other panels, fallen petals create a rounded blanket of debris against the black ground, the detailed textures shimmering like piles of seashells on a beach, confetti left over after a party, or the tiny paper discs that go in the trash when you empty a three-hole puncher. Up close, the blossoms often break down into component parts of squiggly black and white (like smudged halftone dots), their seasonal impermanence transformed into minute abstraction. And the larger scale of the prints adds a slice of weight and presence, the expressiveness of the trees (and Moriyama’s vision) that much more imposing.
Moriyama has also included a few female nudes in this show, which at first glance, appear out of place. But the high contrast images center in on extremes of washed out white skin and flowing black hair, and it is those tendrils of draped hair that connect back to the tumbling boughs and branches of the cherry trees. Similarly, a muted image of the hollows of a woman’s back dissolves into surface texture, just like the blossom photographs hung right nearby.
Taking on what is effectively a national symbol and upending its typical optimistic associations with a dark and gloomy aesthetic is the kind of photographic risk taking we have come to expect from Moriyama – he has deliberately challenged the conventional wisdom here and has instead searched for a new way to see the flowering trees and all they represent. His cherry blossoms are darkly seductive and volatile, almost temperamental when observed closely, and his mastery of photographic craft has allowed him to control the image making process so that the results find the right notes of crackly contrast. It’s as if Moriyama has blotted out the sun, leaving the glorious lightness of the cherry blossoms to wrestle with the demons of the night.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $1700 and $45000 each, based on size, with the tall panels at $20000 each. Morimaya’s photographs are generally available at auction, with recent print prices generally ranging from roughly $2000 to $70000.