Visual Culture

How to Take Photographs like Daido Moriyama

Takeshi Nakamoto
Jul 17, 2019 2:47PM

© Daido Moriyama. Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing.

Snapshot photography is all about capturing the natural movement and expression of whatever you are photographing—the subject—in that particular moment. Daido Moriyama is a photographer who has devoted his life to taking such photographs.

When Moriyama was in his early twenties, a friend sold him a cheap Canon 4Sb, and he took it with him onto the streets of Osaka, which is where he was born and grew up.

When Moriyama started doing what he does in the mid 1960s, almost no one else was roaming the streets of towns and cities, camera in hand. But nowadays, everyone out there has a camera, either in their pocket or their bag, and thus the means to take snapshots. Nevertheless, as Moriyama points out, “Most people only take snapshots of things immediately around them in their daily life. Fundamentally that means that they’re not going out of their comfort zone. But out on the city streets, everything you encounter is alien and unknown. That’s what taking snapshot photographs of the city streets is: you’re capturing the alien and unknown.”

In Sunamachi, Tokyo

© Daido Moriyama. Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing.


“For our first lesson in snapshot work,” Moriyama tells me, “there’s really no better place to start than an ordinary shopping street—the kind you find in front of railway stations in any town or city in Japan. Shopping streets are places that have everything, all mixed up together.”

The Sunamachi Ginza is one of Japan’s most historic shopping streets, a stretch of road about 670 meters long, between Meiji Boulevard and Maruhachi Boulevard, in the east of Tokyo’s Koto Ward. This part of the city retains quite a bit of the charm of the historical shitamachi, the traditional working-class districts with low-rise buildings and houses, and narrow back alleys.

“Whenever I photograph shopping streets, I make it a rule to walk the street twice—I go up the street, then back down again. The light will always fall in a particular way when you go up the street, and then the opposite way when you’re going in the other direction, so different things will present themselves to you. Something that seemed quite worthless when seen against the light might seem absolutely fascinating when the light falls on it from the front.”

In Tsukudajima, Tokyo

“Photographs taken near water always come with an element of risk,” Moriyama tells me. “They can often feel quite dreamy and poetic, but this can be both good and bad.”

For our next location after Sunamachi Ginza, Moriyama chooses the Tsukuda district in Chuo Ward, in the heart of Tokyo. Once known as Tsukudajima, it is a man-made island originally built up by fishermen from Tsukuda village near Osaka.

Moriyama says it’s a good idea to shoot straight into the sun when taking photographs by bodies of water. “If you take pictures into the sun, or partially into the sun, things by the water look very sharp. Reflections on the surface, the ways in which you can evoke various ideas through nuances of light—all that can be effective and interesting. By the same token, photographs taken with the sun behind you often end up totally without nuance. There’s a fine line, and these photos can easily end up becoming ‘imaginary landscapes.’ Of course, any photographer worth his salt will question the thinking behind such a label, and say ‘So what? What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with imaginary landscapes…?’”

In Ginza, Tokyo

© Daido Moriyama. Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing.

As we set out to take shots of Ginza, I notice Moriyama is now using a digital camera. After the day’s shoot, I get Moriyama to talk about what difference using the digital camera made to him.

“When you take photographs with a digital camera, you see an image of your most recent shot in the LCD panel, just for an instant. The more you take, the more you want to take. It’s like you’re continually stimulating yourself, increasing your desire, just by looking into that little screen.” On the other hand, Moriyama is not one to spend time reviewing his shots.

“When I started with digital, I did review all my photos. I also deleted any shots I didn’t like on the spot. Now, I won’t do that—I purposely don’t delete any. Because you never know—you might not like a shot immediately after you take it but, often, when you look at it again a bit later, you think, ‘Hey, this is actually surprisingly good!’ So my advice to anyone who’s still new to digital photography is, don’t review your shots.’”

On the Highways of Kanto, Japan

© Daido Moriyama. Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), Moriyama traveled all over Japan on the national highways, just like the narrator of the book, Sal Paradise, who buses and hitchhikes all over North America. And, just like Kerouac and his friend Allen Ginsberg, who both wrote records of their adventures, Moriyama took his own record of the trips he made.

“A single highway is so raw and fresh—it’s like a living creature. There is an incredible variety of things waiting there on the road. Desolate landscapes; crowded, messy, busy streets. And outside the towns, you have fields, mountains, bridges, tunnels.”

But considering the skill of the average photographer, surely shooting scenes that flash past as you drive by at speed is a rather rough-and-ready way of going about things?

On the contrary, Moriyama says. Movement, and especially speed, is essential. “Passing through all sorts of landscapes at high speed, skimming through, heightens your interest in what you see coming towards you. It’s that feeling of anticipation—or rather, of not knowing what to expect—that’s important.

“Your vision behaves differently when you’re moving along at speed to when you’re walking through the city streets. Quite often something presents itself to you in a way it never would have if you’d been on foot. It’s those moments I wait for.”

Takeshi Nakamoto
Takeshi Nakamoto is a journalist and photo book publishing consultant who has produced a number of Daido Moriyama’s books.

Excerpts from the book Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs. © 2019 Laurence King Publishing.