What I learned from… Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs

Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs

All photos in this post are credited to Laurence King Publishing.


“You never should dismiss something out of hand. Especially with photography, you must try absolutely everything. Of course, clearly, everyone has preferences, and a person can’t love everything out there. But if you’re too fastidious and fussy, and you won’t try this or that, you end up missing out.”

Daido Moriyama, How I Take Photographs, p.77 

The quote of Moriyama’s comes from the chapter “Ginza: A debut in digital photography”. In it, the legendary snapshot photographer reflects on his (then) recent adoption of a digital camera. He also reassesses his historical avoidance of the glitzy Ginza, having preferred instead more obviously gritty locales. 

The words at the top of this post carry with them the spirit of experimentation: curiosity, openness, bravery and, importantly, trial and error. But it’s not just a good phrase – its meaning solidifies through Moriyama’s open practice of the philosophy and his admission that he needs to remind himself of it from time to time. Throughout the chapter, it’s demonstrated that Moriyama remains open to things at odds with the OG version of Moriyama – digital, colour, glitz – and openly acknowledges that he is still experimenting, working out what he likes and the logistics of shooting in digital. To read his willingness to admit past mistakes and current struggles feels like being permitted to stumble. On a creative journey, this is incredibly liberating and necessary. 

Reading this book at a time when I was very new to photography was a thrill. Like many new photographers, I faced the trending communities of a gear-obsessed YouTube and over-edited Instagram. (That’s not to say there aren’t those doing great work in these spaces – more on that in another post).

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Black and white film shots from Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs. Credit: Laurence King Publishing
Colour digital shots from Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs. Credit: Laurence King Publishing

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Encountering Moriyama’s philosophy – in print, no less, purchased on a whim – with its punk, carefree, do-what-I-want-because-I-want-to attitude was, and remains to be, a tonic and inspiration. It’s also fascinating because it doesn’t shy away from a feeling of contradiction that makes art and its practice human. That is to say, though Moriyama promotes experimentation and doesn’t fear failure nor change, he is driven in the extreme, passionate and fascinated with his practice. He has his mission – to peek under the facade of his surroundings – and this is his drive; photography happens to be the vehicle. To restrict himself with gear, format, location, or anything else runs counter to this drive. 

It’s not just Moriyama’s words that carry this message, of course. The photographs throughout How I Take Photographs are a testament to his creed and practice. Not all of the pictures are good. Many of them I don’t think much of at all. However, amongst these are flashes of genius and clarity. There’s also a good chance I don’t understand some of them. But, in the context of Moriyama and this book, the quality and worth of the pictures don’t matter. All of them inspire because of the very fact they were taken – he went out, he didn’t hold back, and he photographed without fuss and fastidiousness. Occasionally he missed his goal, but he never missed out. 

Ultimately, this is the lesson I take from How I Take Photographs: to go out and take photographs – and lots of them. To shoot like Moriyama is to have goals and little expectation; it is simply to do it. I always keep this sentiment in my mind when I’m out on the street. It’s helped me more than I can say. 

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Thanks for reading.

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Postscript: 

When I was writing the post above, I remembered something else:

In the 2014 sci-fi movie Ex Machina, there’s a scene where tech-pioneer Nathan stands with his bewildered employee, Caleb, and look at a painting by Jackson Pollock. Here’s what they say: 

Nathan: This is Jackson Pollock, the painter of dripping. Well, he cleared his head and let his hand go where he wanted. Neither will nor chance, but somewhere in between. This was called automatic art… Imagine that Pollock had reversed the challenge, rather than doing art without thinking he would have said to himself “I can’t paint anything” if he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. What would have happened?

Caleb: He would never have made a single point.

It might smack of pop-psychology, but I can’t help it. These lines have always stuck with me, though I’ve always struggled to find my version of Pollock. I can appreciate it in music and literature, but I’ve never been that good at applying it myself. 

Moriyama inspires me, not necessarily through his images but through his spirit. Snapshot and street photography is the perfect place to apply this thinking – there’s no time to do anything else. It touches on that strange moment between conscious and unconscious action: All of our instinct comes into contact with our understanding of the world, our perception, and conspires to have us click the shutter. As I say, it smacks of pop-psychology, but it feels pretty spot on to me. 

Published by William Lobley

Writer and street photographer

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