Observers of Place
William Klein + Daido Moriyama examines the importance of the urban environment
for two of post-war photography’s most compelling and elusive figures.
Tokyo and New York, two of the world’s most vibrant and iconic cities, are at the heart of William Klein + Daido Moriyama, an ambitious dual retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, co-curated by Simon Baker and Juliet Bingham. In the 1960s, the era in which Klein and Moriyama made their names as photographers, these were two very different cities, with starkly contrasting immediate histories in the shared narrative of the global conflict that was the Second World War. However, they were also drawing ever closer in the experience of the onslaught of global capitalism and its cultural ties and tensions. As Simon Baker comments: “Both Moriyama and Klein took photographs of New York and Tokyo, their respective home environments and also cities in which they were tourists, so there’s an exciting dynamic between the local and the foreign in the show.” A narrative of the two cities and an exploration of the late 20th century urban environment more generally, William Klein + Daido Moriyama is above all else an abundantly generous representation of the work of two of contemporary photography’s most singular talents.
Of the two artists, Moriyama is likely to be the lesser known for a British audience, and part of the exhibition’s project is to contextualise Moriyama and by extension the wider situation of post-war Japanese photography. From this point of view, there could be no better companion artist than William Klein, whose early photobooks were of profound influence to the Provoke movement, which was of great importance in shaping Moriyama’s aesthetic. Founded in 1968, Provoke was a radical movement in photography generated by the fire-brand magazine of the same name, which ran for just three extraordinary issues. Featuring the work of photographer and writer Takuma Nakahira, poet Takahiko Okada, photographer Yutaka Takanashi, art critic Koji Taki and Moriyama himself, the magazine came to define post-war Japanese photography with its “are-bure-bokeh” aesthetic. The style was rough, with its obscure, coarse, out of focus images in direct contrast to the slick advertising photography of major international corporations during the Japanese post-war economic boom.
Rather, the photographs of Moriyama and the other artists of the Provoke movement reflect the turmoil, torment and uncertainty of the urban landscape in those years. The Second World War is a constant – though not directly addressed – presence in the photographs. For example, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem to brand almost every one of Daido Moriyama’s blurred and hazy urban scenes with a violent flash of light, symbolic of the ongoing influence of the bombings on Japanese society. In Moriyama’s 1969 image Smash-Up, from the series Accident, two wounded vehicles face each other head-on, their fronts folded in from the impact. One car is decidedly worse off than the other, and above it is a grainy cloud of light, obscuring some of the car and seeming to hang threateningly above it. In the reflective sheen in the top left hand corner of the image, it’s possible to make out a road safety sign.
Moriyama’s Accident series has strong affinities with Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, with both artists showing a profound interest in the gaze of the detached onlooker. The stance of the photographer in Moriyama’s works is most often that of detachment and observation, as he photographs Tokyo’s bohemian Shinjuku district. Baker comments: “The character of Moriyama that comes through in the photographs is more the sort of person who is stuck on the side rather than in the thick of it.”
Indeed, if the influence of Warhol is constantly felt in Moriyama’s work, so too is the influence of another post-war hero of American culture, Jack Kerouac. After reading Kerouac’s seminal On the Road, Moriyama reportedly took it with him everywhere he went. Baker points to the diaristic quality of Moriyama’s photography, where the camera is seen as an extension of the eye and a way of reacting to and engaging in his surroundings on a constant day by day, hour by hour basis, as an authentic parallel to Kerouac’s impetuous hot-footed prose. This aspect of Moriyama’s oeuvre is embodied dramatically in his 1997 installation work Polaroid Polaroid, which recreates the artist’s studio in Polaroid photographs. The doubling of the word Polaroid in the title is a testament to photography as mirror – as reflection. Another parallel can be seen in the writings of New York poet Frank O’Hara, whose celebrated Lunch Poems were written on his lunch-breaks from working as a curator at MoMA, and which are, like Moriyama’s photography, utterly in tune with the character of the city and the rhythms of walking its streets.
“Moriyama has been photographing Shinjuku for 40 years. It’s an area he keeps returning to. I think one of the things that is most interesting about photographers is how they are very often most interested in their home towns and home patch, going over the same space again and again. Shinjuku is the place where Moriyama has spent a lot of his time and it’s a question of re-tracing his steps and finding something interesting each time he goes there. It’s about an openness to what’s happening. It’s the sort of thing you might associate with the way the Surrealists were influenced by the city; allowing the city to impress itself upon you, rather than going there with one set idea.”
Klein’s work, too, is engaged with the experience of being in the city, and in particular, the exuberant brashness of New York. His urban photography eschews the clichés of the city’s more familiar sights in favour of a theatrical dramatisation of the teeming life on its streets. In his raucous kaleidoscope of crowds, faces and product advertising boards, Klein’s seminal 1956 book Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels captures the spirit of New York in its intense, delirious images which often border on the abstract. Klein was revolutionary in his capturing of the humorous tumult of images such as Gun 1, in which a viciously playful child thrusts a toy gun directly at the camera while a curious looking skin-headed child looks on. In Candy Store, Amsterdam Avenue (New York, 1955), the chess-board background of a store seems to echo off the surface of the photograph, leaving the two figures as the background, rather than the subject, of the image in a sort of topsy-turvy version of the status of the individual. The chaos of the images reflects the chaos of New York itself. As Baker explains: “He tried to make a formal language that was equivalent to the experience of being in a city – the helter-skelter, the avalanche of images is pieced together and sequenced in a very clever way. I would go so far as to say it’s cinematic and, of course, Klein would go on to do some fantastic work as a filmmaker.”
In some of Klein’s earliest works, it is possible to see this new vocabulary emerging literally into focus, such as in New York, 1954, which shows a man up a ladder changing the titles of the show on an illuminated cinema sign. The shadowy figure in the raincoat is in sharp contrast to the swathes of light from the sign’s bulbs. Shot from a slightly edgy angle, it looks as though the ladder could keel over at any minute, leaving the half-constructed words of an alien tongue: “bon c can”, the sign reads. This image is a powerful iteration of Klein’s obsession with the act of capturing things in process, rather than in completion. Alongside the large selection of Klein’s fashion and art photography (no artist has done more to blur the distinction between the two), there is a screening programme of his work in film, including the satirical features Mister Freedom (1969) and Who are You Polly Maggoo? (1966). Satirising American right-wing politics and the fashion industry respectively, these films represent an extension of the searing, high-spirited energy of Klein’s photography.
One of the most innovative aspects of the exhibition is the way it places the photobook at its centre. In curating the show, Baker was influenced by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s 2004 study The Photobook: A History, a large two-volume book that demonstrates that “the history of photography is the history of the photo-book.” Baker has called Moriyama and Klein “two of the most innovative book makers in the history of the photography”, and this importance of the book as an artistic vessel for photography is reflected in the emphasis given to displaying and staging the experience of the photobooks in the exhibition. Visitors are able to see the photobooks displayed in vitrines, with prints also displayed on the wall in the same format as the book. The interaction between what’s in the books and on the wall allows, as closely as is possible, an experience of these out-of-print and ultra-rare books, and helps to bring the books into the exhibition in a central and dynamic way. In 1964, when Klein published Tokyo (1964), the third of his city books after New York (1959) and Rome (1959), he increased the page size so that the double spread measured half a metre wide, giving a confrontational largeness and directness to the prints that is reflected in the boldness of the images themselves.
Baker comments: “Klein has a magic way of capturing people, from children on the street, jumping, messing around, playing baseball and pointing toy guns at one another onwards. He has a really direct, brash, you might even say brutal, way of photographing people close up. He wants to give you that feeling of being jostled in the street.”
The brutality of Klein’s eye is evident in one of his most iconic images from Tokyo, Shinoheira, Fighter Painter (1961), in which a dramatically swaying Japanese action-painter looks as though he is thumping into the wall with his swathed fists, spreading black ink in thick calligraphic splodges. The image is violent and aggressive, but also tender, with the artist’s head passionately thrusting sideways in an almost helpless groaning motion that wouldn’t look out of place in a Francis Bacon painting.
This work is also an exploration of the abstract works with which Klein began his career as an artist, which are extremely little known and rarely shown. These throw new light on some of Klein’s most celebrated images, such as the stills of fashionistas in black and white zebra dresses in Who are You Polly Maggoo? (1966), which can be seen as abstract paintings almost playing out on the bodies and the environment of the figurative subjects he depicts.
Klein’s images of Tokyo are very different to those taken by Moriyama, just as Moriyama’s images of New York in Another Country in New York (1974) are very different to Klein’s vision of the city. As an example of Moriyama’s commitment to exploring the installation and dissemination of photography, he self-published the book in a kind of public art performance, using a photocopier in a disused storefront rather than a gallery or commercial publisher. Utilising double frames, the images seem to spiral and multiply constantly, as though there is never just one image; they are rolling infinitely into more and more replicas of the same view. As Baker explains: “You are reminded all the time you are looking through a view finder, moving around, getting close. Whereas, with Klein, there’s almost no camera. You are right there in the crowd.”
Positioning the work of Klein and Moriyama next to one another in an exhibition of this scale and size is an ambitious and daring project, reflecting a belief that not only are there enough affinities between the two artists’ bodies of work, but also that the work of each artist is strong enough and distinctive enough to diverge in fruitful and exciting ways. This is thrown into potent relief by the images used on the 1963 exhibition poster: Klein’s Sortie D’ Ecole, Dakar (School Out) and Moriyama’s Memory of Dog 2 (1982). In Klein’s image, taken right up close to the face of his subjects, a joyful boy’s tongue leers out of his mouth towards an outstretched hand in a crowd of boys. The image is energetic and exuberant, with the photographer seeming to be an integral part of the crowd in the image. In Moriyama’s image, the camera is positioned behind the head of a skin-headed child as he walks the street in Tokyo, as though following and observing him. It’s a much more contemplative, quiet image, and the effect is altogether more disconcerting and haunting. The exhibition is a forceful reminder that contrast is always more fascinating than similarity.
William Klein + Daido Moriyama ran from 10 October until 20 January 2013 at Tate Modern, London. www.tate.org.uk.