This exhibition starts with a lie. ‘I don’t know if individual photographs contain ideas, worlds, history, humanity, beauty, ugliness or nothing at all. I actually do not really care. I just extract and record things around me, without pretence,’ says influential Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (1938-). And he doesn’t mean a word of it.
Because what makes this show so good, makes Moriyama’s work so good, isn’t that it’s some objective documentation of the world around him or a philosophical quest for photographic truth; it’s the impossibility of that truth, and the way he intentionally blurs the awkward boundaries between documentary and fiction, reality and what a picture of that reality means.
It starts with images of Tokyo street life, foetuses in formaldehyde and traditional Japanese theatre. The actors in their thick makeup are caught between tradition and modernity, keeping their culture alive in a country that’s changing, westernising, at lightning speed. This is the closest to classic documentary that Moriyama gets.
It’s all ultra-blown out, super harsh, high contrast, fragmented and dark
After this, he starts to distance himself from truth. He creates a series of ‘accidents’, images of car crashes, assassinations, bodies on streets, crowds being crushed. But the car crash is a rephotographed poster, the assassination is photocopied from newspapers, the crowd crush is just some people at the beach. He’s appropriating, twisting, reshaping, showing that photos aren’t real, they’re not the truth, they’re something else, something darker.
He then gets involved in a magazine called Provoke, creating fetishistic photos that unfold as you turn the pages. It’s real desire supplanted by mediated images. His photos of highways are blurred and close-cropped, his photos of New York are caked in filth, suffocated by the glow of late night TV.
It’s all ultra-blown out, super harsh, high contrast, fragmented and dark. It’s postmodern gonzo weirdness, documentary photography for people who think that’s an impossibility.
It pushed him so far that he totally lost faith in photography and gave up on it for a decade. When he comes back to it in the early 1980s, he’s swapped blur for clarity, splintered fragments for bigger views, but he still has the same eye for grit, dirt, toilets, bare arses, stray dogs, traffic.
But no matter what he shoots, the ‘truth’ seems to elude him. And it doesn’t matter. Because in this search for the impossible, this photographic journey towards objective reality that doesn't exist, this trip full of rubbish, grime and lies, he finds something even more honest: life.