Daido Moriyama and Jack Spencer

Let's see. What would happen if you took a really smart chimpanzee, taught it to push a button, gave it one of those Point-and-shoot-auto-everything cameras, and set it loose with say 2000 rolls of film for one year in any city in the world.  After a lab processed the film and a selection of the images was blown up to 30" x 40", framed, matted and mounted exquisitely, and exhibited in an impressive gallery, do you think there would be anything interesting to look at? You bet!  But it's all in the editing you would say. True, but whom would we get to do the editing? How about the chimp? His point of view might have it's own "beast" slant. We might call it "A Chimp's Eye view," his edit, perhaps not more, nor less interesting than say that of John Sarkowskis', but different.  Or we could get John Sarkowski to do the editing and there would be something to look at too - another point of view.

What are we to make of art that appears to require little craft and looks like "anybody could do it" given the right equipment, the time , the money, the beautiful frames or as in the case of artists like Jeff Koons, highly paid assistants. The work of Jackson Pollock might be an example to consider. Surely you or I could drip and drool that house paint on a big canvas just as well as he did, (maybe better to our minds.) Ok, even if you had the paint, the big studio, the canvas, and enough alcohol on your brain to free things up a bit, do you think you would have had the courage to do it and call it art? Think again.

Think back to the 1950's and 1960's and remember what was going on in the world of art at the time. Picasso had freed the image from the strictly representational and DeKooning and Kline were beginning to push paint around with big brushes on giant canvases. But nobody had abandoned the brush anything altogether and just thrown the paint at the canvas. And further, claimed it didn't represent anything. It simply was what it was - paint on canvas. That was radical.  And that's just one of the reasons we continue to look at those paintings.

The innovation of Pollock's work might be a good one to consider when thinking about the work of Daido Moriyama, famed Japanese photographer whose series "Osaka" was recently exhibited at the Taka Ishii Gallery, Bergamont Station, LA. Moriyama is widely acclaimed in Japan but little known in the USA - a situation that is sure to change after his San Francisco MOMA exhibition scheduled for 1999.

Moriyama began his career as something of a failure. Having failed his high school examinations, it was only through his parents' exertions that he was admitted into an arts and craft school in the center of Osaka's' entertainment district where he whiled away his adolescence drinking in the bars and music halls. Later he was employed by Takeji  Iwamija, a large format photographer whose traditional Japanese style and discipline were an early influence. Moriyama left Osaka for good in the beginning of the 1960's to seek his fortune in Tokyo as an assistant to renowned photographer Eihoh Hosoe. In Tokyo, the underground theater of poet and essayist Shuji Terayamas' Laboratory of Theater Play, became his stamping ground and subject along with photographing in the clubs, streets and strip joints of the "pleasure districts." By 1968 he had achieved critical recognition in Japan and won major prizes.

Thirty years after leaving Osaka a film producer asked Moriyama to return to his native city in order to document the early influences in the photographer's career.  Though loath to revisit the difficult experiences and places of his youth, he reluctantly agreed. Unexpectedly he found  himself once again drawn into the life of the city, overwhelmed with nostalgia, reminiscences, and forgotten memories. Offered an opportunity to stay to photograph anything he wanted, he decided to spent a year wandering the old haunts, back streets, bars, alleys, and by ways of Osaka, photographing only with simple point-and-shoot cameras. His exhibition at the Taka Ishii Gallery, only his second in the US, is the results of that year.

Consuming countless rolls of 35mm film and chewing through cameras, he used his camera like an Uzi, or shot like a sniper or a hit man, stalking his trophy, sneaking up on, and aiming at the life he saw around him. Many of the images are of women walking away, their anonymous, unidentifiable backs heading towards some unknown destination or assignation. One shows a woman in a short skirt standing alone in the midst of a crowd on a shadowy rain drenched street, people pass by in all directions, but none look at her. What does she wait for?

Ten of the photographs in the show were enlarged to approximately 35" x 50" and handsomely framed. These were the most formal and conventionally "beautiful" of the lot and included one spectacular image in a railway station, a gleaming, sculpted train just entering at the corner of the frame, its' surreal lights glowing.  Another ten of equal size but differing in that they showed portions of adjacent frames, as though they had been cut out of a super large contact sheet, and thus perhaps meant to convey that the images were snipped from the constantly changing, hurly burly of life, one minute this snapshot, the next minute another. Roughly crafted, these photographs were tacked to the wall with pushpins, the edges of the paper curling in the Los Angeles humidity, and appeared to be random shots of ordinary moments and mundane occurrences in everyday life, haphazardly framed and captured on the fly. One showed a woman squatting to piss over a grate in the street, her bare bottom exposed to the photographer, cars going by just feet away and no one paying any attention. Other images seem to have been taken on the streets at night in the seamier parts of town, large, gritty, grainy, slightly out of focus, printed in extremely high contrast, with extensive spotting clearly visible, they have the feel of darkness, death, trouble and danger. The margins of life captured from the sidelines by a lone shooter, an image thief. His quarry: Osaka Noir.

Memories and Dreams

How do you tell a story? With a beginning, a middle and an ending, or none of these. With words that open a dialog or seek closure.  By communicating an experience or creating a fantasy.
The story you tell may not be the one the hearer hears or the story may change over time and with circumstances. Some stories, the great stories, the best stories, engrave an indelible image in the mind of the hearer, an image so powerful that it stays there long after the words that formed it have been forgotten, an image that in some unnamable way holds the message, the meaning of the story, its' deep secrets summed up and revealed in one stark picture.

In his exhibition A Return Home: Pictures From the American South, show at the Gallery of Contemporary photography, Bergamot Station Arts Center Complex, Santa Monica, CA.,
these are the pictures that Jack Spencer creates with his camera: elegiac moments in a long ago summer night; a fleeting memory of a missing friend; or an instant of innocence under a tree on a tire swing. We, viewers, stand before them perplexed, searching our minds for the time we last heard the tale, the one about the dog, the black dog, or that evening just at dusk, willing our hard heads to remember what only our hearts can know. And failing each time dismally, because simple words can never bring forth what these pictures tell.

Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, and raised in Louisiana, Spencer returned to the South after a long stint in the West. His absence from the region of his birth gave him the opportunity to see with new eyes the exotic mysteries of a distinctly Southern landscape and to better understand and refine his own deeply personal vision.

Described as "self taught," he appears to have had a superb instructor. He shoots in medium format. The brown toned, selenium washed prints are extensively altered in the darkroom through the elaborate use of masks, soft focus and meticulous dodging and burning in specific areas. The resulting, exquisitely crafted, prints have the appearance almost of paintings that convey poetic memories of a sepia tinted time lost to our memory but present once again in our dreams.

The sensibility reflected in his work on such themes as the Mississippi Delta, outdoor African American baptisms, and the "home of the blues" is one of intimate insider, close friend and next of kin. His work is "from the inside out," never the other way around. For Jack Spencer, with his camera and the magic he performs in his dark room, paints us a dark, sometimes macabre, often humorous and always loving portrait of Southern traditions and culture. Our job, humble viewers, is a matter of acceptance and recognition.

Photometro, Volume 16, Issue 150, 1998 A.M. Rousseau