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He brings the back street to the forefront

Daido Moriyama prowls the darker side of Japan in his 'Memories of a Dog' photos.

December 14, 2006|Cindy Chang | Special to The Times

IN a series of essays titled "Memories of a Dog," Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama writes of revisiting significant places in his life to better understand his memories of them. Photographs, he notes, are "the history of memory."

Indeed, many of Moriyama's photographs could be seen as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the images in the mind's eye across a period of many years. Just as with a memory, some elements are blurred and others stand out in relief.

A show at the Stephen Cohen Gallery through Dec. 30 spans nearly 40 years of Moriyama's career, from the 1960s to the early 21st century. It includes the image with which Moriyama is inextricably identified -- a 1971 photograph of a stray dog, its head lowered, feet planted and eyes glowing with an expression somewhere between menacing and pleading. (A small accompanying show displays the photos of Keizo Kitajima, a former student of Moriyama's.)

Moriyama is considered one of postwar Japan's most important visual chroniclers. Though some older Japanese photographers, such as Shomei Tomatsu, were strongly anti-American, Moriyama was young enough to only know a world in which American soldiers threw candy to youngsters and danced with Japanese women at Christmas parties.

"He embraced American influence, the westernization of Japanese culture, and he was also drawn to the darker side, the residues of that life -- nightclubs, the theater world, the underbelly, so to speak," said the gallery's director, Beverly Feldman.

Born in Osaka in 1938, Moriyama lived in a series of towns as a boy, making few friends and practicing the solitary wandering and observing that would later become the catalyst for his art. After dropping out of one high school, his father enrolled him in a design program at a technical school, commenting to the boy that "your only talent is drawing," Moriyama recalls in "Memories of a Dog."

But Moriyama dropped out of that school too, roaming a nearby red-light district instead, and even found it difficult to show up for the apprenticeship with a commercial artist that his father had arranged. He eventually began drawing matchbook covers for local bars, picked up a camera and moved to Tokyo in 1961 to work as an assistant to Eikoh Hosoe, famous for his photographs of writer Yukio Mishima and butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata.

Inspired by Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," Moriyama took to the highways of his native country, hitchhiking or enlisting a friend with a car. He was also influenced by Andy Warhol and the New York street photography of William Klein. One photograph in the show, of stacked V8 and Campbell soup cans, pays explicit homage to Warhol.

THE photograph of the stray dog, which Moriyama took near a U.S. airbase in northeast Japan, is not only his most famous work but has also come to be seen as an embodiment of the artist's own self -- solitary, footloose, apart from society.

The print in this show has the dog's head on the right side, as Moriyama originally saw it -- but he has also exhibited mirror-image prints with the head on the left.

"The strong image of that photograph had caught the eye of many people, and thereafter that dog and I came to be seen and talked about as if somehow superimposed on each other," Moriyama writes in "Memories of a Dog."

"Also, the figure I cast during that time, roaming around town and on the back streets, carrying my camera, appeared in others' eyes very much like a stray dog."

Some of the later photographs are sharply focused, without the blurry edges and tilted perspectives that were a hallmark of Moriyama's earlier work, but the sensibility is little changed.

Now in his late 60s, as in his 20s and 30s, the artist still roams the streets of big cities and small towns with a 35-millimeter camera, capturing the contrasts and loneliness of a country that has gone from rubble to boom to postindustrial malaise in his lifetime.

Sometimes he zeroes in on single objects, such as a hat, a bare light bulb or a cabbage plant. Body parts are often shown in isolation, whether it is the disembodied lips on a television screen or the bare buttocks of a woman whose face we never see.

Sometimes he takes a step back to reveal himself, the photographer, as a shadow looming over his subjects.

In Moriyama's version of memory, it is sometimes the unlikeliest images -- a row of mannequins, a bandaged index finger, a pair of fierce eyes staring from a movie poster -- that remain vivid, even after more central details are forgotten.

weekend@latimes.com

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Daido Moriyama

Where: Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Ends: Dec. 30

Info: (323) 937-5525, www.stephencohengallery.com

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