Letter from Tokyo #2: Beyond Moriyama and Araki

©Tsuneo Yamashita

The photos in this post were all taken by Tsuneo Yamashita, a photographer who lives in Tokyo but has been taking black and white snapshots in Okinawa for over almost 30 years. They come from his book “Another Time on the Ryukyu Islands,” published in 2009 by Tosei-sha. In a statement for the series, he writes, “When I took these pictures, I had no intention of introducing Okinawa, or explaining certain events. These were simply taken while on short personal trips, printed out after my return, and stashed away in a box for myself. [...] I never submitted any of these photos to school, and just kept them with me for many years.”

©Tsuneo Yamashita

©Tsuneo Yamashita

I want to focus on the connection between photography and personality that Yamashita brings up. This is nothing new, as Yamashita’s work references other serious black and white snapshot photographers like Shigeo Gocho, an interesting photographer active in the 1970s. This kind of work is probably less interested in making a statement and more interested in showing the photographer’s (highly personal) way of looking at things–it’s a relatively free style, in that it’s not weighed down by a concept.

Not only Yamashita and Gocho, but the two most popular Japanese photographers today, Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, work in this way. These two living “demigods” are probably the first two Japanese photographers that LPV readers will know, and with good reason: looking at their work is a great place to start with Japanese photography in general, and this personal style in particular. Lately, I’ve been feeling like they’ve been a little bit overexposed, but because of their massive reception abroad I think it makes sense to introduce (or, perhaps, re-introduce) them here. I hope that showing Yamashita’s work will make it clear that while they are a good place to start with Japanese photograhy, they’re not where you have to end up.

©Tsuneo Yamashita

Daido Moriyama is famous for the high contrast, grainy black and white look he pioneered in the 1970s. This style pretty much flattened everything it touched. In other words, Moriyama was expressing himself through technique more than anything else, so when you look at these photos you don’t get a strong sense of “place.” Although he did not get a lot of recognition while he was actually producing this work, he is now an internationally famous photographer, and his style has become widely influential. Recently bookstores and museum gift shops in Japan have been flooded with Moriyama product: limited run magazines, t-shirts, buttons and other knick-knacks. Still, as Moriyama’s commercial stock has risen, the quality of his work has dropped off. He’s continued to mine the same territory of wandering an urban landscape and making contrasty prints, but it feels like much of his recent work is predictable: “Moriyama does Sao Paulo,” “Moriyama does Buenos Aires,” and so on.

A real low point came with his most recent book and exhibition, “Nagisa,” which may have been a real attempt to branch out with his subject material (if not stylistically), but for me it fell flat–I got the impression that I was looking at the photos of a high school student on a trip to the beach with his first girlfriend, which I’m pretty sure is not what Moriyama was going for. He deserves the recognition he’s gotten, but the recent influx of his publications (there have been many) feels more like grist for the mill, rather than a late-period surge of creativity.

©Tsuneo Yamashita

Nobuyoshi Araki, meanwhile, has kept up a consistent level of production over the years, and even as he (like Moriyama) gets on in years he shows no signs of letting up. He’s still putting out books of Tokyo street photography, still doing exhibitions where he shows up and wears a t-shirt with one of his own photos on it, and still basically being the man who everyone wants a piece of. Like Moriyama, he’s got a few DVDs out, but from what I’ve seen there’s been way less junk on the market.

While Araki is easily pigeonholed for his provocative color nudes, but the scope of his work goes well beyond that. Last year he put up an exhibit at Rat Hole Gallery with photos of his dying cat Chiro, which frankly blew me out of the water. I had been pretty skeptical of Araki, but this show won me over to him completely: I came to think that Araki’s genius doesn’t have anything to do with technique or composition, but the lack of distance between photography and his life. In terms of the Chiro exhibit, I mean to say that I could *feel* the connection he had with this animal. There was this one photo where he was looking into the dying cat’s eyes, and there was something extraordinarily human about it: not in the cat of course, although its eyes were “expressive,” but in that I just made the mistake of saying “he was looking into the cat’s eyes,” and not, “a photo representing this gaze.” This explanation might be kind of pedantic, so I could also just say: it was cosmic.

©Tsuneo Yamashita

©Tsuneo Yamashita

Moriyama and Araki have already established themselves as monoliths of Japanese photography, and while Araki can still rock pretty hard I do think it’s time to start looking at some other people. Incidentally, seeing Yamashita’s 2009 exhibit of these prints gave me a simiarly visceral experience as Araki’s cat photos. The leaves in the bucket and the fish laying out especially grabbed me, though at all expect that to translate to your screen. (If it does, email me.) Yamashita is working in a “straighter” way than Moriyama or Araki, but all the same his personality is there in the work. He doesn’t have much recognition even inside of Japan, but he’s put in the same dedication to make photography a part of his life as his internationally celebrated colleagues.

©Tsuneo Yamashita
  • Ian

    Okay, I admit to reading fast and not clicking on links when I should be. Went back and looked at some Yamashita’s work. He’s certainly a great technician, and there is a kind of elegiac quality to his photos of New York, just a bit, not enough for me to say, hey in a couple of years one of Yamashita’s images will come back into my consciousness.

    It’s funny to note that in his New York series on his site, his last image is of the Ancient Humans model at the Museum of Natural History (hope I’m right on the location). Hiroshi Sugimoto also took photos of the same subject, albeit from a slightly different angle. Yet Sugimoto’s images impacted me a lot more when I first saw it.

    Maybe you can consider writing something on Sugimoto, although I’m not sure if he can be considered as a Japanese photographer because he works mostly abroad…

  • http://twitter.com/d_abbe Dan Abbe? ??????

    It’s clear we have different views, but thanks for the civil reply.

    The Truffaut quote sounds like a joke or an exaggeration, not a way to seriously judge art! If that’s what you’re working with I don’t think you’ll be interested in many Japanese photographers other than Moriyama and Araki.

    One thing about Moriyama though: for me, taking a picture of a poor person or a sex worker does not guarantee a political tendency. He’s definitely interested in expressing the joy and agony (well mostly agony) of making photographs, but I wouldn’t hold him up as an example of a politically responsible photographer. (Tsuchida Hiromi would be my pick there…)

    As for more of Yamashita’s work, there is a link to it in the first sentence of the first paragraph :D

  • Ian

    To me, most of Moriyama’s work between the 60s and 70s have strong political bent. They may not be overt, but I can easily imagine the kind of socio/political atmosphere that gave birth to his photos (e.g. the image of the prostitute in Yokosuka, or one from the early 90s of someone taking a piss on public street).

    Regarding Yamashita. Yes I re-read the first paragraph, including the artist’s statement, and I still find that unsatisfactory because I don’t think it’s responsible for an artist today to say those things. Once again, this is just personal preference, but when I view art I go by this philosophy of Francois Truffaut: “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.”

    I just can’t see the joy or agony in Yamashita’s work. If there are links to his other work, I’d love to see them. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough?

  • Will

    Gorgeous photos, and the context you put them in makes things a lot more clear. Not knowing much about contemporary photography even in the US, hearing about Yamashita’s work in relation to these two “giants” is very helpful. Really like the amount of “presence” you get out of these images, especially the flowers in the water and the children on the beach.

    Kind of reminds me of the music scene, especially having read an article recently about how Radiohead are one of the very few bands in pop music history to stay relevant for 18 years (since Pablo Honey dropped in 1993 to today), sounds kind of like Nobuyoshi Araki, whereas maybe Daido Moriyama is more of a U2 (or Sonic Youth/REM if you want to take it a bit indier). Anyway, I’ll let more photo-literate people weigh in, but those are some thoughts that came to mind.


  • http://twitter.com/d_abbe Dan Abbe? ??????

    Hey Ian. I’m interested in the relationship between Japanese photography and political events, and more generally the question of whether photographs can be “political.” That said, I think in this case you might just want to re-read the first paragraph :D

  • Ian

    I appreciate what you are trying to go for here, but I just don’t see anything special with Yamashita’s work, especially this day and age. 20-25 years ago, maybe. Today? Considering all that’s going on with Okinawa, I find it hard to derive any meaning or emotions from image as apolitical as these.

  • Cyril

    Tsurisaki Kiyotaka who dedicated his work on dead bodies is personnaly, the most under estimated japanese photographer today.

    “Every body deserves attention. And that certainly includes the deceased.
    There are all kind of jobs, and no matter how gross or dangerous they are, someone has to do them. We all die, yet few of us want to see what happens once we take our last breath. Face death, that’s the point I am making.”

    La Pura Vida right?!

    I’m amazed how some photographers are ignored because of their subjects.
    The dead body in “Dog Days Bogota” is fine because it’s Soth…same with Jacob Holdt…war photographers…

    Article on Japan Times: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20091210jk.html

    French publisher IMHO published two amazing books in 2006 “Requiem de la morgue” and “Revelations”:



    It’s just a shame Tsurisaki’s website is so trashy, you should experience his work on books.


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