Review: Daido Tokyo
This is a short review of Daido Tokyo, a photo book that contains two recent collections of images taken in the Shinjuku district by one of my favourite photographers, Daidō Moriyama. The book is based on an exhibition of photographs at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2016.
Moriyama is one of Japan’s most successful and prolific 20th Century photographers, noted for his characteristically casual style with photographs that are often blurred, grainy and out of focus and which explore on the seedier side of life in a modern mega city. He is known for his use of compact cameras, and his work is one of the definitive embodiments of the seemingly heretical idea that it is the photographer than counts, not the camera.
Daido Tokyo presents two sets of photographs taken relatively recently, between 2008 and 2015. Although Moriyama is known as a street photographer, this work is perhaps better characterised as a form of documentary that captures fleeting and often surreal moments of life in a large Japanese city.
The first, “Tokyo Colour”, comprises a set of images detailing urban fragments from the environment of the city. Although there are occasional recurrent themes, such as images of tubes, wires and pipes, and collected fragments of advertising posters, there are also unexpected interjections such as images of reptiles. A number of images juxtapose senses of order and chaos in the city, but Moriyama’s instinctive preference is always for the latter. The printing is good, and the images are well presented, mostly using a mix of single-page and double-spread formats which works well with the subject matter.
The second half of the book, “Dog and Mesh Tights” continues the theme in black and white. The photography is again superb, with a similarly surreal mix of contrasting subject matter. Unfortunately, it is let down by the printing, which uses matte black paper to give a result that is muddy and dull compared to the way the work is normally presented. The problem is compounded by the decision to present some images four-to-a-page in what is already a small format book, and many of the images lack impact in this form.
Daido Tokyo is perhaps best visually described as loosely organised chaos. Individual photographs largely lack context and few are likely to be considered a masterpiece in isolation. But taken together the result is an anarchic flood of images where the fun comes from spotting loose connections, recurring themes, and references to earlier work. It is remarkable how seemingly mundane pictures of cigarettes or air conditioning ducts take on a sense of the seamy sexual side of the city, juxtaposed against torn or degraded posters of lips, and fragments of models covered in mesh garments.
Moriyama’s deeply personal stream-of-conscious approach to the collection creates a very strong sense of the overwhelming visual exuberance and degradation that has long been a hallmark of Shunjunku.
For an introduction to Moriyama, I highly recommend this excellent Tate video interview, which digs into his philosophy and way of working. You can also find a good selection of gallery images on his official web site.
Daido Tokyo is published by Thames and Hudson, and has 248 pages in hardcover format sized 18x27cm. Its ISBN is 978-2-86925-122-9. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please visit a local bricks-and-mortar shop if at all possible!