The Daido Moriyama Photobook Collection at the ICP Library: Nippon Gekijo Shashincho / Japan: A Photo Theater

I remember my husband’s purchase of our first Daido Moriyama photobook. In fact, I remember it very well because it was also the very first Japanese photobook we ever bought. At the time, 10 years ago now, neither of us knew that this seemingly innocent purchase would signal the beginning of what we now fondly refer to as our Japanese photobook acquisition disorder. In 2002, he attended a gallery opening for `71-NY: Photographs by Daido Moriyama, an exhibition that took the then risky stance of presenting both photographs and photobooks as equals within a gallery installation. On view that September evening, at the reception attended by Moriyama, was a prominently positioned case filled with many of Moriyama’s seminal Provoke Era photobooks from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, along with photographs on the wall from his first trip to New York City with graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo.  Included in the photobook selection was Moriyama’s very first book, Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater (1968). It didn’t take much effort for the gallerist to convince my husband that this photobook was unlike any other photography book he had ever seen. A deal was made, the book was purchased, and our Japanese photobook obsession launched.  At the time, the name Daido Moriyama was hardly familiar within American photographic circles. Now, with the passage of several New York solo shows and his winning of the 2012 ICP Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement, Moriyama has finally been recognized beyond Japan as one of the leading photographers of the second half of the 20th century.

To commemorate his ICP Infinity Award, several generous donors, with the assistance of ICP curator Christopher Phillips, Ivan Vartanian from Goliga Books and Akio Nagasawa from the Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, have made it possible for the ICP Library to assemble the most comprehensive collection of Daido Moriyama photobooks outside of Japan. With the monumental task of cataloging the 42-book donation now smoothly underway, librarian Matthew Carson has put together a very thorough Moriyama bibliography. Providing an incredible resource for the ICP community, photographers and scholars, this collection offers the first opportunity in the U.S. to explore the visual and conceptual trajectory of Moriyama’s photobooks over a 44-year period. What better book to begin a Moriyama photobook exploration with than Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater (1968) – his very first book and the book that began my husband’s and my Japanese photobook collection.

Quietly unassuming from the outside, the velvet-like olive green soft wrappers of Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater hide a riotous mix of images that demonstrate a complete disregard for traditional photobook etiquette. Beginning with a small black-bordered portrait of a debonair dwarf, Moriyama intersperses photos of actors from Japanese impresario Shuji Terayama’s avant garde Tenjo Sajiki with motion infused images of daily life. The entire book abruptly ends with a non sequitur of very still and disturbing black and white photos of aborted fetuses. Initially published the year before in a Camera Mainichi magazine series entitled Entertainers, the non-linear narrative structure and blurry image quality of Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater was shocking at the time of its publication. As a forceful, almost violent response to the prevailing subjective documentary vision of the current generation, Moriayama’s images signaled a new distinctly Japanese photographic language  — one that was not just occurring in photography, but also in cinema, theater and dance. Pages presenting outrageously dressed thespians are followed by double spreads of salarymen at banquet tables and baton twirling majorettes.  The overriding sensation from this book is that of a “spectacle” that portrays life in a constant state of motion.

This sense of motion also suggests the notion of a book as ongoing, never a final document. For Moriyama, the photobook is clearly an object, but not in the same reverential manner as Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu / The Map (1965). There is something a bit irreverent in Moriyama’s photobooks, leaving room for creative freedom in the publication of reprints and sequels.  A wonderful aspect of the current donation is the ability to see the evolution of a photobook through its reprints and sequels. In the case of Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater, there are 2 reprints in the collection and a loosely related sequel entitled, Zoku Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater II (1978). Published 10 years after the original, this sequel shifts the focus from the actors and people who inhabit their respective stages and urban environments, to the objects that overpopulate the modern metropolis. In a cluttered cacophony of signs, posters and commercial detritus, Moriyama showcases mass media in his grainy, blurry photographs that reveal the embattled soul of urban modernity. As number 6 in the Asahi Sonorama series of photobooks by recognized Japanese photographers, the physical structure of this book is quite different than the original. As a book clearly directed towards both a western and Japanese audience, it reads left to right and includes an English translation of Japanese curator Shoji Yamagishi’s essay. Gone are the rich inky blacks of the original gravures. Instead there is a more polished feel with glossy full-bleed images of crowded streets and fragmentary signage. The sense of motion is still palpable, but despite the bleed printing, the overall feeling of this book is more contained.

Revisiting the same raw visual energy and sequencing of the original, yet through distinctly different sizings, are two reprints from 1995 and 2010. Due to several modifications made for mass distribution, the 1995 reprint is best described as a “revised edition” rather than an exact replica. The square format of the original is dramatically scaled down and re-positioned within a vertical format that feels very much like a paperback novel. Although still conveying the unmediated psychological edge of the 1968 version, the odd scaling compromises the original visual quality by creating odd white borders on the top and bottom of formerly full-bleed images.  The 2010 Kondonsha reprint also alters the original square format, but this time from an opposite direction by cropping the original right and left borders of formerly non-bleed images. Neither solution is ideal. Lost is a sense of depth and urgency created by the dense gravure images of the 1968 version. The overall effect is constrained and loses the slightly out-of-control, yet familiar sensation that is the hallmark of the original.
It is this sense of the familiar that teeters on the edge of utter chaos that convinced my husband of Moriyama’s genius when he first viewed his Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater (1968) at the 2002 gallery opening.  Rarely does one feel that they are experiencing the emergence of a new visual language. Yet, that is exactly what was (and is) felt when viewing Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater. I felt this same sensation last summer, upon viewing Ryan Trecartin’s video installation Ever After at PS1/Moma in New York. Like Moriyama, his characters, words and narrative elements are all very familiar, yet remixed to suggest a parallel universe, which is only thinly veiled by a surface of calm. If Moriyama’s photographs could talk, they’d probably sound like the speeded up, hyper-real chatter of Trecartin’s gender-bending characters Pasta and Jammie. It is this ability to reveal the bizarre and absurd in the seemingly normal that makes Moriyama a harbinger of a dramatic and game-changing new aesthetic language – one that purposefully gets under our skin through a remix and re-composition of the familiar led astray in a media-saturated world.

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Books Mentioned:

Daido Moriyama (photographs); Shuji Terayama and Daido Moriyama (text). Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō  / Japan: A Photo Theater. Tokyo: Muromachi Shobo, 1968.

Daido Moriyama (photographs); Shoji Yamagishi (text). Zoku Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō / Japan: A Photo Theater II. Tokyo: Asahi, 1978. TR654.M67 1978

Daido Moriyama (photographs); Shuji Terayama and Daido Moriyama (text). Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō  / Japan: A Photo Theater (revised edition). Tokyo:  Shinchosha, 1995.

Daido Moriyama (photographs); Shuji Terayama and Daido Moriyama (text). Nippon Gekijō Shashinchō  / Japan: A Photo Theater (revised edition). Tokyo: Kodansha, 2011. Recently catalogued

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