Daido Moriyama’s Never-Ending Tour, a review of Pretty Woman by Robert Dunn

The first time I met Daido Moriyama, I told him I thought of him as the Bob Dylan of photography. A small smile, an undisclosing nod. I can’t say how he felt about my comment. Yet now more than ever, with new Daido books coming once, twice, thrice a year, it looks as if he’s emulating the aging Dylan (Daido’s 78, our current Nobel laureate 75), who’s well-known for his never-ending tour. (I recently saw Dylan and his crack band in Hudson, NY; a terrific show.) Nope, these guys won’t stop … and won’t stop putting out great work.

Just as Dylan’s changed course again in the last few years, recording Sinatra standards, intriguingly, Daido’s throwing in some new twists to his oeuvre in his exceptional new book Pretty Woman, which I’m reviewing here. (Be warned, there will be numerous Dylan correlations throughout this piece, so I can’t resist up front mentioning the great Roy Orbison song “Pretty Woman,” possibly inspiration for the book’s title; and of course Orbison was one-fifth of the Traveling Wilburys, along with Dylan, George Harrison, et al.)

Back to Daido, back to the book. Pretty Woman is a mix of rich, saturated color shots worked in with high-contrast black and white, nothing new for Daido in essence, though he doesn’t usually mix color and b&w. It’s a large book, nine by twelve inches, and as is customary with Daido, the photos are printed full-bleed. They’re mostly street shots, Daido prowling the narrow streets of Tokyo, camera in hand, looking for that photograph only he can take. As we shall see, Pretty Woman is in many ways a compendium of classic Daido tropes, but it also breaks a lot of new ground in subjects and his approaches to them. What’s truly astonishing is that the photos here are not only his best work in years, but some of his best photos ever.

Like Dylan, Daido seems to like to work fast. He appears in the book’s final shot framed in a street mirror, his small, presumably now digital camera up to his eye, his Beatle-esque moptop rising above his camera-clenching left hand—the image of the travel-light, shoot-what’s-great street photographer. Daido’s art, like Dylan’s studio work, is a practice of in quick, out quicker. With Dylan we know it’s all about instinct. I’ve been working my way through eighteen CDs of every extant take from his three best mid-’60s albums, and there are great songs that, just not clicking on tape, Dylan abandoned. I mean, truly great songs that stand with his finest, such as “She’s Your Lover Now” and “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” It’s all feel … the quick flash of gesture, the word images and musical moment seized before they fly away.

So with Daido on the street. The shots in Pretty Woman were taken recently, over a one-year period, and mostly in Tokyo. The eternal beauty and power of Daido’s work (as with Dylan’s) is that it’s simply one man with flaming intuition and world-divining vision out taking in everything that comes his way and wresting art out of it. As he courses the streets with his tiny camera, Daido shoots not so much what’s there but grabs what only he can see. It’s a flood of rich details, a woman’s earring, the fluff of a legless mannequin’s costume, the tarot-card-esque madonna before a blue-tiled wall … and that’s him just getting started.

In Pretty Woman, amazing image piles atop amazing image, just as in Dylan’s best songs. Allow me a small conceit. Let’s think of Dylan as a kind of photobook maker. Take his epic “Desolation Row,” with its flow of vivid pictures: postcards of hangings, brown passports, beauty parlors swelling with sailors, a circus new in town … and that’s just the first four lines of the eleven-minute song. Followed soon by this alltime great street shot: Cinderella with her hands in her back pockets, Bette Davis–style. Talk about a pretty woman revealed in a new way.

That’s the Dylan effect at his best: a cascade of images making no clear literal sense but always sweeping us into a visionary world … somewhere within his own Gates of Eden. So bear with me as I pick shots at random from Pretty Woman. A scarlet shopping bag next to a discarded cigarette pack. A moon-eyed woman on a light-splattered street. A vivid red tulip arcing over a blue cityscape. A pouting owl snuggled against a man’s chest. A midnight-blue ribbed hose snaking over a mottled floor. A back Shinjuku alley, lone bar chair on the street. Black sunglasses (classic Dylan-style) on a corrugated-cardboard mannequin. A red-tutued woman, white mask on her face, parading down a wide avenue. Blue earbuds slipping down the side of a pretty woman’s face. A silhouetted miniskirted woman smoking in a backlit doorway, no doubt whispering of escapades out on the Marunouchi Line.

The above paragraph is composed of images I got from randomly flipping through the book. Meaning, I could go on and on. Put a band behind these shots and Pretty Woman would rock!

I said earlier that the book captures some of Daido’s best work in years. I’m addicted to his photobooks and pretty much pick up each one he puts out. I’m always happy to see what he’s up to, where he’s gone—Marrakech!—but some books feel a lot like some guy just walking around with his camera shooting crowds on streets; they don’t possess a full draught of Daido magic. But his best work has always come out of Tokyo, his own mythical version of the city, perhaps, and so Pretty Woman feels inspired by familiarity even as it rings new changes on not wholly unfamiliar Daido imagery.

There’s a flood of little toy frogs, not unlike the pictures of Daido’s from decades back of towering soup cans. (A pause here while I say that both Daido and Dylan have borrowed from numerous places, and Daido’s ’60s wall of soup cans references Warhol at just the time Dylan was dipping his toe into the Factory and writing “Like a Rolling Stone” for Edie Sedgwick.) Looking for red lips? There’s a stick-on set on a ghostly white mannequin. Even better is a flame of lips on the beautiful dead-eyed face of a woman under cellophane wrap, presumably a mannequin? But best of all is a quick red-kiss paint dab atop a pair of sexy black stockings, just below the crook of a knee.

The latter is an alltime classic Daido shot, as if after all these years he finally found a way to reduce his obsessions to one image. (This photo is reproduced over and over in miniature on the book’s inner cover.) A late career epiphany, not unlike Dylan discovering his own genius all over again, this time by making those Sinatra covers sound like Dylan songs, as he’s done on his last five discs. It’s the power of a compelling artist swaying all he comes across into his own vision. Deep inside the Gates of Eden indeed.

In Pretty Woman, as mentioned, there’s wholly new kinds of Daido images, too. Particularly striking is a red mouth with teeth and braces just there on a white background. A looming lattice of suspended stairs ominous before a gray sky. Sun–glowing wheat-colored strands of hair flying across a woman’s ear.

And more. How about a spookily revealing street-photographer shot: Daido snapping a man before a public urinal, half of him and his camera caught in the rest room mirror. Another voyeuristic shot, this time through a car window, short skirt rising up the female driver’s left leg. A three-girl pop group, mikes in hand, just a tease of petticoat under one girl’s skirt. And most unexpected, a small, touching street moment: a groom adjusting his bride’s bodice as a pant-suited woman friend cools them both with a yellow fan. A shot almost sentimental yet lovely just the same.

(Small personal note: In my own work I hesitate taking photos on the street of people on their cellphones. Daido doesn’t have many, but inevitably a number of phone shots appear in the book. Why won’t I shoot them? Because people on their phones have abandoned their attention, indeed, forsaken their souls, to the devices; and so a shot of someone gazing screenward captures little but blankness, nothingness. I can’t say Daido has avoided this problem. The phone-gazers might be endemic today in any cityscape, but the little magic screens have still wiped out anything human or interesting from photographs of people immured in them.)

Still, not many smartphone shots, and just think of the abundance, the grandness, indeed, the overwhelming delight of turning the pages of Pretty Woman not knowing what mind-blowing photo you’ll find next. Oh, my, how’d I miss the black-and-white spread of checkerboard tiles, a woman’s crossed ankles above them. Or the gold-toned mannequin with the presence of a Roman statue. Or one of my favorite shots, the watch-capped tough behind a graffitied blue plastic pane, pen scrawls scattered over his stare-you-down face, most telling a small pair of red lips floating over his own.

O.K., I fear I’m having too much fun turning Daido’s always striking photos into words, but what the hell … it’s that kind of book. Indeed, I can’t stress enough that Pretty Woman, while replete with these amazing photographs, is at heart simply a great book. Just as we can single out towering Dylan songs, especially from his early masterpieces like Highway 61 Revisited, no one song—or anything else—compares with the effect of that album as a whole.

That’s what a great photobook must be: Not simply a collection of photos but choices and orderings that make the book so much more than that. That’s the toughest trick, whether it’s a record album, a collection of short stories, or a photobook: to make the whole vastly richer than the pieces.

Daido’s done it. Again. Pretty Woman is a book that stands alongside his previous masterworks Japan a Photo Theater and Bye Bye Photography.

Consider that a main reason we collect great photobooks is to not simply own a few prints by a photographer we like but to own a whole museum, not to mention the book as a work of art in its own right.

Pretty Woman is your best museum visit in years, reading it an experience that will knock you out loaded. The book is a strange fever dream, a walk through a city that surprises at every turn, a clash of vivid, stirring images that whisper manifold mysterious things to each other even as they shout out the boundless magic of street life itself.

This year the Nobel Prize committee in Sweden saw fit (finally) to give its literature prize to a musician and songwriter, arguably the Shakespeare of our time. Does it have the vision and guts to expand literature even further and award the prize to a photobook maker? If so, it can only be Daido Moriyama.

Pretty Woman by Daido Moriyama can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). In Spring 2017, Dunn taught a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.