‘Shooting images as if he had a machine gun’: a major retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery in London explores the work of the groundbreaking image-maker
Daido Moriyama is a relentless and restless photographer. “My body inevitably enters a trancelike state,” he once said, describing his devotion to image-making as an “endless murmuring refrain”. Known for his unpretentious and democratic approach, the Japanese iconoclast has tirelessly documented the street for almost 60 years, publishing his work in hundreds of photobooks and countless magazines. He remains one of the world’s most prolific living photographers, using his lens to capture and comment on reality, capitalism, and the mass consumption of images.
This weekend, an expansive retrospective of Moriyama’s work will open at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. It is the first exhibition in the museum’s 52-year history to occupy the entire institution – from the gallery spaces on its upper floors, to the ground-floor cafe, and basement book-shop. One floor of the gallery will be transformed into a reading room, offering a rare opportunity to spend time with Moriyama’s defining publications.
The show will feature large-scale prints of Moriyama’s raw and grainy images, but at the heart of the retrospective are magazines and books. In one room, 140 spreads will be printed and pasted as wallpaper, while another will screen a three-hour projection of the entire archive of Moriyama’s self-published Record magazine. According to curator Thyago Nogueira, this is exactly how Moriyama wants his images to be seen. Born in 1938, Moriyama made his name in the 60s as a freelance photographer for magazines like Asahi Camera, Camera Mainichi, and Shashin Jidai. These titles shouldn’t be mistaken as trade publications. They were progressive and radical, propelling the medium forward through genre-defying approaches and critical essays.
“Daido really learned to think about photography in the context of communication and of mass media,” says Nogueira. “This is where he found the beauty of the image – its changing life, its changing aspects, and its wide circulation.” In 1969, Moriyama joined the groundbreaking magazine Provoke, which shook the art world with its “are, bure, boke” (“grainy, blurry, out of focus”) black-and-white images.
“Moriyama is interested in how we substitute our desires with images and how we fetishise our lives” – Thyago Nogueira
Magazines were at the heart of his practice – a world away from stuffy galleries and the commercial art market. This is what makes Moriyama’s work, and this retrospective, so special, and relevant. It is an invitation to experience the original sequencing and design, and the gesture of flicking through the physical publications. Crucially, it’s also an opportunity to consider how photography has developed as a medium, and how it has influenced modern society today. His concerns about mass media and the over-consumption of images will feel strikingly relevant. “Moriyama is interested in how we substitute our desires with images, and how we fetishise our lives… how images can build a new world, a new reality, and how we start to live in those realities,” says Nogueira. “He was thinking about this in the 60s and 70s. It feels very contemporary, to think about how we are affected by images and how our lives are guided and ruled by an image culture.”
Moriyama will celebrate his 85th birthday next week, and, according to Nogueira, he still shoots every day. “[The images] are digital, they are low-quality. He’s saying you don’t need to look through a viewfinder, you don’t need special equipment. He’s just walking around and shooting images as if he had a machine gun.” As Moriyama famously said: “For me, photography is not a means by which to create beautiful art, but a unique way of encountering genuine reality.”
Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective is running at The Photographers’ Gallery from 6 October 2023 until 11 February 2024.