In the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Daido Moriyama's photographs seem to be at the height of tension. Goff's curves and spirals, his adherence to the "natural" forms and colours that cities have supposedly forgotten, seem at distinct odds with the straight lines, sharp angles, dark corners, harsh lights, contrast and exhaust of Moriyama's photographs on display. On view through 31 July, Fracture: Daido Moriyama, is a show that spans Moriyama's early black and white photographs, all the way to recent colour photographs of Tokyo, the latter debuting at this exhibition. And yet, Moriyama's photographs can be read as organic, as well as natural: the account or reflection of a different kind of reality. The man-made, maybe subversive pulse and pant of a city — and not just of the people in it, either. In Moriyama's photographs, man and concrete, woman and skyscraper, human hand and cement pillar, human head and endless tunnel, stray dog and stray person seem of equal value to each other. And photographer and photographed do not compete for attention. Here is Moriyama's spiral form: the past feeds into the future, the future into the past, one unplanned action feeds into the following, a moment is its own reflection, and a footpath is a tributary to an expansive motorway.
Somehow, to call Moriyama's photographs "urban," and leave it at that, is a failure of words. After all, what of the "bucolic" qualities of a city, which he captures? The breeze, the sway, the wide open spaces, moments when time stops despite surrounding movements? It's curious why this exhibit at LACMA is called Fracture. What's broken, really? The ties between Moriyama's older and newer photos appear resolutely strong, held together by atmosphere and by the photographer's point of view. As for the subject of Tokyo, and more specifically, the Shinjuku district: its fractures, rather than suggesting weakness, suggest an unlikely robustness. These photographs are full (of energy, of implication), which leads to the sensation of their being complete, or whole. Even the obvious fracture between older black and white photographs and the new colour images seems a small distinction to broadcast, seeing as the presence of colour sheds no more or less light on an subject than does its absence.
On the day of Fracture's opening, Moriyama is at LACMA to give a talk at the museum's Art Catalogues Bookstore; the conversation is billed as covering "the gritty erotics of Japanese urban life" and the line of people gathered to hear it warrants a tip-off to the paparazzi (and makes evident that "erotics" draws a crowd). Before we have a chance to officially meet, I cross paths with Moriyama, walking the grounds of the museum. From a distance, I watch the 74-year-old photographer, surrounded by a huddle of people, as he stops to pose for photographs with the museum-goers flagging him down. Later, back in Goff's pavilion, Moriyama and I sit down together before his scheduled talk. The architect Kulapat Yantrasast (wHY Architecture) acts as translator between us. Moriyama tells me that there is a fracture present in the show, which he's just had a chance to see for himself. "Society is a fracture, and these photographs offer a representation of society," he says. Still, he's glad I don't sense a separation between the works themselves, or their subjects. He doesn't either. "It's meaningless to try to set up a hierarchy within a photograph," he tells me.
But can a photographer avoid the hierarchy between what's in front of the camera and who's behind it? I know Moriyama has, on occasion, been confronted by the people he's captured on film. I ask him, then, whether he feels himself part of the scenes he documents.
"No. By the very nature of photography, that's impossible," he answers. "But in my photographs, I do try to present what I see and my way of looking at things at eye-level. At least, I can present a non-hierarchical way of looking at that scene, even if I can't truly be in it."
What, then, can be said of the unavoidable separation between photographs by time, by decades? I ask Moriyama whether there is really such a thing as a timeless photograph, or is every photograph inevitably a relic of the day it was captured? The photographer takes a minute to answer. "You know, you start to think about the future in an almost nostalgic sense," he says. "You become aware of how you will later look at the moment you captured. Here [at this exhibition], I look at a photograph I took 30 years ago, and of course it talks to the particular moment when it occurred, but that time in the past also links to this time in the present. Now the past takes on new meaning."
In that way, it seems, a photograph is a living, transforming object, not unlike the cities and subjects Moriyama photographs. Even buildings and highways, the urban environment —built to withstand time in a way humans cannot — appear malleable in these shots, they seem on the move, on the verge, prone to the same inevitabilities that change or break humans: days, years, use, abandonment, interpretation. Moriyama tells me that, more than a camera, he uses his eye to document what he sees. Both "tools," of course, are prone to malfunctions and a degree of error. So among the most gripping aspects of Moriyama's photos, is that margin between what's being observed and the observer — that certain fracture, in other words, and the only constant between variables. Katya Tylevich
Through 31 July
Fracture: Daido Moriyama
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles