A few reflections on the blockbuster Klein/Moriyama exhibition at Tate Modern. I found it a fascinating exhibition and could easily have gone a few more times: there was so much to see and consider. These notes can’t begin to do more than scratch the surface and reflect some points that particularly interested me. Both men – Klein in particular – are polymaths, with huge bodies of work spanning a range of formats and many decades. Both are still working now, in their 70s (Moriyama) and 80s (Klein) and the exhibition left me full of ideas and a sense of driving energy and creative force.
They have much in common and some things that distinguish each from the other. Both are fascinated by city life, though I think it's fair to say that Klein is particularly interested in the word outside himself while Moriyama concentrates more on expressing internal states. Both have made a number of books and are interested in exploring a range of media and print forms, with Klein particularly interested in film and the moving image as well as graphic arts and Moriyama innovating in the field of magazine publishing. Both in their way have challenged their societies through their work and at the same time have pushed the boundaries of photography forward.
The exhibition starts with the work of William Klein, the earliest of the two photographers. Klein began as a painter and graphic artist studying under Fernand Leger, and we saw a selection of his graphic works, including the screens that led to his interest in photography when he photographed them moving and became intrigued by the unpredictable graphic patterns they made and the possibilities photography offered. There were experiments in abstract form including some wonderful graphic photographs of Dutch barns inspired by Mondrian and his early works for Vogue, predating and clearly foreshadowing sixties pop art and the work of photographers such as Bailey by at least half a decade. Many of these early pictures have been reworked by Klein recently – contact sheets blown up and painted on, making wonderfully alive graphic pieces which explore the process of photographic selection. They also show his irreverence and desire to reinvent the past and keep on moving.
We were treated also to a ten-minute film where Klein talked us through his process of taking pictures and selecting winners. ‘Say you know 125 – maybe as much as 250 - works by a photographer. That’s a major body of work. And all those pictures together add up to – what, a few seconds at 1/250 or 1/125 of a second? What happens in those seconds, to set them apart from the instant before and after?’ Klein then talked us through a selection of contact sheets, the pictures before and the pictures after the ones he chose, the nearly pictures and the definitely-nots, and the few that made it through. The selection included a number of his iconic New York images - fascinating and very revealing.
Klein’s interest in the process of making art was evident also in the wonderful film ‘Broadway by Light’ (1958). Described by Orson Welles as “the first film I’ve seen in which the colour is absolutely necessary” (a curious comment by today’s standards when colour is the default, but entirely appropriate to this film which would be significantly diminished by being in black and white). The film was shot in Times Square, and shows his interest in both typography and the process of making images – and in the sheer energy of the city. Signs move and dissolve into light, sometimes purely abstract and sometimes showing clear words – often the same words, repeated a number of times – I noted Sign, Gesture, Ulysses, Zeus, Pops Up (many times, including the final frames, where the gaudy light starts to fade as night ends and the real sun appears). I don’t think the reference to Ulysses – bringing to mind both the Greek myth of the traveller far from home and Joyce’s wonderful exploration of modern consciousness with its verbal jazz rhythms and incorporation of music and the vernacular speech into the modern novel – was at all coincidental. Nor were the images of the workers keeping this magnificent show on the road, fixing signs and light bulbs. I don’t think I caught half of what was happening in this extraordinary work but remember the energy and life, while the more profound reflections on our world, on the stories we tell ourselves and our new heroes continue to play in my mind.
Update - this great short film is available via Youtube, as are clips from other films by Klein. Do watch it if you can.
We saw work from all of his books including the one that made his name and, in the words of Martin Parr, changed the nature of street photography fundamentally: ‘Life is Good and Good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels’ (the subtitle is a mangling of ‘Chance Witness Reveals’, a reference to his own role in the work). Much has been written about this work and I won’t add significantly to that. The layout, printing and format of the book all struck me as daring even now – sixty years after it appeared. Klein says “I saw the book I wanted to do as a tabloid gone berserk… This is what New York deserved and would get.” The printing style is not like photographic plates but more like a newspaper or magazine of the time. Images are sometimes styled full bleed, sometimes inset onto pages, in strips, in varied layouts and sizes against black or against white. Almost everything a design student would be taught to avoid in layout. On some pages he writes on the images or collages words. Everything works, because it is styled by a master eye, who knows what is necessary both for the individual images and how to use the whole book as a messenger for an energy and sense of excitement that pulsates through the pages. What I find interesting about this as well is that these aren’t just pictures of sensation. There is a real intelligence and lively human interest behind it all – the endless pictures of children (and some adults) with guns seem particularly prescient in light of recent shootings, and he explores again the fascination with advertising and the messages people are surrounded by. His pictures are often as close as they could possibly be, and in most shots there is at least one person looking back rather cautiously at the photographer…
I could write much more and undoubtedly will return to Klein’s work again (that remarkable film of my childhood hero Muhammad Ali!) but I will end now with a final reflection on the painted negatives – seen above and in a range of formats. When looking closer at smaller versions I noticed that the paint is smeared on in thick strokes (he used enamel paint to get the effect). I was taken by the physicality oft he process as well as the graphic dynamism – but most of all his his inconoclastic playfulness. Of this work he says “The jubilation of painting recalled the celebration of taking the photo. For me, taking a photo was a celebration, was physical and have me a super charge.”
And that one of the key things I want to take away from this work. to some extent I think my fascination with Klein is because he is so different from me. I am not going to be inspired by him to go out and stick cameras right into people’s faces (or not often). However I can take some of the playfulness, the refusal to be hemmed in by rules, and particularly his working across art disciplines – a refusal to recognise barriers. His sheer visual inventiveness and graphic eye will reward further study also.
And so to Moriyama -
If you check out the films linked on the Tate site you’ll see one of Moriyama taking pictures in Tokyo streets. For him as for Klein the process of taking pictures is significantly important – and indeed pleasurable. The film starts with Moriyama walking through the streets of Shinjuku, saying “I have always felt that the world is an erotic place. As I walk though it my senses are reaching out. For me cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires. And as I search for my own desires within them I slice through time, seizing the moment. That’s the kind of camera work I like.” Moriyama was significantly inspired by Klein's work and by Pop Art. OCA tutor Clive describes him as taking Klein's approach a stage further, into an exploration of consciousness and feeling.
Moriyama’s early work was broadly documentary in approach, recoding folk traditions and city life. But this approach did not satisfy him, and during the sixties his approach gradually became more experimental. One of his defining moments came when he became interested in the negatives and contact sheets thrown away by fellow photographers, all evidence as he saw it of experience. His work increasingly explored blur, eccentric crops and angles, noise and extreme contrast – all ways of exploring and pushing the photographic process as well as attempts to show a layer of meaning below the immediately visual.
I confess I wasn’t hugely drawn to his work initially. I think that it suffered by following Klein. I also think that, as he says himself, large photographic prints are perhaps not the keystone of his work. When I saw the small prints, magazines and books in cabinets such as the one the gentleman above is looking into I was much more taken by what I saw. For me at least, Moriyama's work is more successful on an intimate scale.
As we were visiting near to the end of the exhibition the exhibition books were on sale and I acquired a half price copy of his 'Tales of Tono'. This is a small book of very dark moody prints, with an essay by Moriyama at the back. I bought the book because it was cheap and also because I liked its smallness. Slightly smaller than an average paperback each image is printed very small indeed. Something about the grain and darkness and the way the book felt in my hand appealed to me. On getting home I have been rather pleased to discover that it is an exploration of a place that had significant meaning for Moriyama. I haven’t really absorbed the book yet but I was struck by the fact that Tono for Moriyama is a kind of idealised home town, “something like ‘the original landscape’. He reflects on the experience of photographing the actual place and his frustration with the results of that process. “If I had been there without a camera, I might have been able to see my dream of a ‘home town’. But no matter how simply I would try to take the photographs and how much I was tempted to try to adapt the photographs to my feelings, the camera was there to intervene and it competed with my own dream. In other words, the camera confronted lyricism with narration.” This reflection is very close to my own interests just now, my exploration of two places I know well and that have meanings I need to unpack (and my frustration at not being able to complete my ‘emotional landscape’ as planned for my first assignment and coming back to a literal approach ) and I think this may be a very fruitful study.
My instinctive response to Moriyama isn’t as positive as to Klein, even though (or perhaps in some ways because) he may be closer in temperament to me. I didn’t get on with his work on a large scale. But perhaps some quieter reflection on this book may bring rewards for my own practice and a greater affection for the work.
All in all, a wonderful exhibition and a great day, with much valuable discussion with fellow students and OCA staff -
- before we set off into wintry London town.
Further discussion of the exhibition and the study visit can be found on WeAreOCA - here.
This slideshow gives a really good sense of the exhibition - useful as a memory aide for for thsoe of us who have been there and a guide for those who couldn't make it.