Daido Moriyama, Shashin Jidai 1981-1988

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Session Press (here) and Dashwood Books (here). Softcover, 11.5 x 7.5 inches, 424 pages. Includes texts by the artist, an essay by Kotaro Iizawa (in Japanese/English), and a fold out poster. Design by Geoff Han. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The photobook is divided into six sections/photo essays with accompany texts by the artist (in Japanese/English), as follows:

  • “Light and Shadow”: 1981-1982, 8 full spreads, 24 images
  • “Tokyo”: 1982-1984, 10 full spreads, 61 images
  • “A Journey to Nakaji”: 1984-1985, 20 full spreads, 98 images
  • “Documentary”: 1985-1986, 15 full spreads, 110 images
  • “How to Create a Beautiful Picture”: 1986-1988, 15 spreads, 123 images
  • “Letter to Myself”: 1988, 5 spreads, 10 images

An exhibition of this body of work was recently on view at Dashwood Projects (March 15 to May 11, 2024, here).

Comments/Context: To understand what’s actually going on in Daido Moriyama’s thick photobook Shashin Jidai 1981-1988, it’s important to first step back nearly a decade, to the early 1970s. At that time, Moriyama was in his early thirties, and had just published Sashin yo Sayonara, an explosive photobook that upended the definitional edges of the medium. Building on the are-bure-boke aesthetics presented in the ground-breaking initial issues of Provoke magazine, its images were filled with radical photographic rule breaking – blurs, scratches, images grabbed from TV screens, found pictures, failed negatives, light leaks, stains, sideways croppings, sprocket holes – and sequenced into an energized, full-bleed parade of fleetingly frenzied impressions. Moriyama declared that he “wanted to go to the end of photography”, and in a sense, that’s exactly where he went.

But when you’ve triumphantly blown up your own medium and it lies in metaphorical ashes at your feet, it’s a little hard to figure out what to do next. And so Moriyama wallowed in a kind of self-inflicted artistic purgatory, hitting the booze and the sleeping pills a bit too hard and eventually wasting away to just under ninety pounds. For the entire rest of the 1970s, Moriyama made hardly any photographs at all, and it wasn’t until he was approached by Akira Hasegawa, an editor of a new magazine Shashin Jidai, to do an interview for its debut issue that Moriyama found a doorway to lead him out of his grim artistic funk.

As part of that first issue in September of 1981, Moriyama convinced Hasegawa to include four photographs that he had recently made wandering around his local neighborhood. One was a shadowy image of a peony blasted with sunlight, and it was this single modest picture that we can perhaps credit with breaking the logjam. From that point forward, Moriyama contributed consistently to Shashin Jidai, in the form of open ended photographic essays mixing images and text that often ran for several issues; he ultimately delivered a total of six of these serialized projects (across thirty-six issues), working with the magazine until it ceased operations in 1988.

Sadly, the vast majority of Moriyama’s negatives from this period were lost, which brings us to the purpose of this recent photobook. Using original magazine tearsheets as its source material, Shashin Jidai 1981-1988 faithfully reprints every image Moriyama made for the magazine, providing a comprehensive catalog of his work for the magazine. To be clear, this isn’t a selection of his best images or an edited survey of the period, but an issue by issue, spread by spread recreation, complete with whatever overlaid texts, page numbers (watch out, these can get confusing), and other graphic elements were originally included. Each of the six photo essays includes a few full-bleed spreads, so we can get an impression for how the pages looked and felt, followed by the full catalog of spreads containing Moriyama’s photographs, along with one of the artist’s contributed texts that ran in the magazine. In this way, Shashin Jidai 1981-1988 is undeniably a scholarly sourcebook, filling in the gaps in Moriyama’s 1980s-era image history in a way that curators and academics can leverage in the future.

In terms of photobook design and construction, Shashin Jidai 1981-1988 takes a few elegant risks that are worth noting. In almost all bound photobooks, the gutter created by the binding is something to be avoided, an annoying distraction which distorts the photographs, pulling them down into shaded darkness; even when a deliberate lay-flat binding is used, the gutter inherently divides pictures in unavoidable ways, interrupting our sense of the imagery. But in Shashin Jidai 1981-1988, the gutter is made the central design element, mimicking the alignment of the spreads in the original magazine. So from a fidelity standpoint, each spread looks exactly as it once did, and more generally, the gutter smartly centralizes all the spreads around one single axis. Shashin Jidai 1981-1988 is also printed on something approaching newspaper paper stock (in light grey for the full spreads and white for the catalog), further reminding us of the tactile properties of the magazine. And then the cover makes one further allusion, using a mesh fabric overlay to slyly refer to Moriyama’s now-famous images of a woman’s legs in tights (which appeared first in the magazine).

The peony image actually gives us a few clues to Moriyama’s thinking at that very rock bottom point. Without a particular artistic direction pulling him forward and after intentionally pulling apart the medium previously, he modestly returned to first principles, almost without the hope that they might actually work. Go for a walk with your camera. Look around with openness and curiosity. See photographically, with an attention to light and shadow (“Light and Shadow” became the title of his first essay for Shashin Jidai). And keep looking, until you start to see with passion once again. And soon thereafter, the juices started to flow, in the form of humble, mundane subjects seen with flair: a flock of fluttering pigeons, a glare of light off a parked Jeep, a textural study of an empty Sprite bottle on the grass, the shiny light and dark of a leather jacket, the flowered dresses of paired mannequins, the grainy contrasts of a fedora, the layered wheels of parked bicycles, some light bulbs on a sign. Baby steps at first, but by the summer of 1982, he was back in something approaching a positive photographic groove.

The next photo essay “Tokyo” gets a little looser, with Moriyama now wandering the downtown streets (instead of in the suburbs) and shooting with more freedom and fluidity. Many more people appear in these images, most somewhat blurred or seen up close, with claustrophobic attention paid to their hair, their clothes, their shoes, and the shadows that dart across their bodies. City lights and passing subways give way to more sculptural looks at motorcycle headlights, electrical poles, window louvers, and a stack of glass bottles, and eventually to unexpected views on various seasonal trips, including waves, a horse in a snowy field, docked boats, some shiny train cars, and some dark birds in a tree. In many of these images, there is a sense of Moriyama still being an outsider, of observations made of places and things that feel unknown or dreamlike.

In Moriyama’s next project for Shashin Jidai (now in 1984), he overtly took aesthetic inspiration from Yasui Nakaji, a respected photographer from an earlier generation who was active before World War II. This series finds Moriyama actively experimenting with photograms, self-portraits that include his own shadow, and staged still life setups (one mixing a whiskey bottle, a few slices of bread, and some darkroom gear), Again, there is an element of quiet playful joy in this relearned seeing, where city shadows, mannequin heads with wigs, eggplants, industrial architecture, the sculptural back of a fan, and even crowds of people watching a parade are somehow new again. He followed this up with “Documentary”, generally continuing along the same path, wandering further afield to various locations around Japan, and bringing contact sheets, stark contrasts, and a restlessly curious eye to whatever he might encounter there. Standout pictures from this project include a dark tunnel entrance, a beach scene, a woman’s long black hair, a black car, a strangely smooth white mannequin, a junkyard heap of cast off machinery, some apples, a hippo, a woman pulling her eye open, a man wearing two pairs of eyeglasses, and some worn basketball shoes. In these photographs, Moriyama’s voraciously free style starts to coalesce, with common themes and subjects reconsidered and tightened up.

During the run of Moriyama’s next series (between 1986 and 1988), he seems to have finally settled in to a period of relative confidence – he moved to busy Shibuya, started up his own small gallery space, and titled his next project “How to Create a Beautiful Picture”, a phrase an artist wouldn’t choose (even in an ironic or tongue-in-cheek way) without some level of self-assurance. In his photographs from this period, he continued to push on contact sheets, overlapped imagery, and extreme grain, while seeming to embrace the bustle of his new neighborhood. And he did indeed deliver some knockout pictures, in particular his mini-series of images of the tilled surfaces of a bathroom, the up-close croppings of a single densely arranged city scene, and a selection of images of the sinuous curves of a woman’s legs in tights. Moriyama also seems to have been entranced by the nearby crowds, capturing schoolgirls in uniforms and silhouetted bodies on the packed streets with the same kind of repeating density he saw in the springtime cherry blossoms. His smaller last project for Shashin Jidai (in 1988), titled “Letter to Myself” has the feel of a stylistic summing up, paired with an introspective turn back inward or perhaps an acknowledgement of the artistic and personal journey he had been on over the past decade. He plays with the contrasty formal shapes of a tire, the boards of a fence, and some black stools, and makes room for some more melancholy notes in a snow covered branch, the rumpled sheets of a curtained bedroom, and the empty desire of the enlarged lips of an advertisement. With the magazine closing, there is a sense of finality to these last pictures, or a positive send off to a new chapter in Moriyama’s artistic life.

I think it’s not much of an exaggeration to say these years in the 1980s were a critical juncture in Moriyama’s career – had he not pulled himself out of the perilous artistic nosedive he was in, he might very well not have achieved anything else photographically. Part of the power of Shashin Jidai 1981-1988 is that it allows us to follow along as Moriyama works through his re-invention process, its methodical combination of images, text, and actual magazine spreads providing a step-by-step chronological diary of his evolution during those years. Of course, at times this process was unruly, messy, and plagued by doubts and self-consciousness, but the photobook offers us an immersive view of these struggles to find a new photographic voice, built up with mounds of photographic evidence. In this way, Shashin Jidai 1981-1988 hits all the high points of a superlative historical photobook, delivering an insightfully rich view into the mind of master photographer at a time of relative crisis, and organizing and packaging that previously under appreciated material in a crisp, unobtrusive manner that emphasizes its enduring importance.

Collector’s POV: Daido Moriyama is represented by IBASHO in Antwerp (here), Polka Galerie in Paris (here), Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York (here), among others. Morimaya’s photographs are generally available at auction, with recent prices generally ranging between roughly $2000 and $70000.

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