William Klein + Daido Moriyama

The startling, sensual work of two photography mavericks arrives at Tate Modern.

Dialogue. It’s one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. It’s a word that's tempting to use when describing Tate Modern’s latest photography exhibition William Klein + Daido Moriyama, a double retrospective of two of the most original urban photographers working in black and white in the Sixties and Seventies. Renowned for a provocative vision of New York and Tokyo respectively, both photographers thrived on the seething, steaming, spontaneous world of life at street level. Both tested the boundaries of the medium and pioneered the tradition of the photobook with genre-shaking studies of locals as varied as Moscow, Rome, Hokkaido and the central U.S.

“Dialogue”, then, is a tempting reading of the show, but ultimately misleading. This exhibition is no straightforward conversation. There is little evidence that the two have drawn more than a passing inspiration from one another's work. It’s unclear to what degree they actually even know each other. Klein + Moriyama should rather be taken as an emphatically open-ended appraisal of two equally acclaimed careers - an invitation to meditate on a touchstone era when two photographers took two cameras and threw the world back in our face.

William Klein, who was born in New York in 1928, was already an established ex-pat painter by mid-century, living full-time in Paris and making abstract canvasses. But he often returned to New York, and an interest in photography blossomed from these early painterly tendencies. His photographs developed a taste for raw emotion, monochromatic geometry and visual punch.

He found his greatest source of inspiration within the city itself; when crowds gathered he was often close behind, shooting parades, protests, funerals, prayer vigils and sporting matches. The images on display are a noisy bunch: scenes stuffed near bursting point with movement, blur, gristle, sweat. Klein shied not from rough edges, poor exposure or aggressive contrasts. His camera, it seems, was less a window to reality than a half-cracked, grease-smeared shop front through which to leer at New York. “My aesthetic was the New York Daily News,” he once said. “I would try to photograph schlock non-events like some crazed paparazzo and print it accordingly”.

In 1954 Vogue’s art director Alexander Lieberman hired Klein as a fashion photographer. Klein began taking his models out of the studio and onto the street, fusing haute couture with his fondness for chaotic street tableaus. The resulting imagery is simultaneously jarring and mesmerising, typified by shots in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome 1960. Glamazonian models decked in black and white garb parade down a zebra crossing, a ripple of sensationalism posed against the backdrop of ordinary Roman hustle and bustle. If Klein excels at one thing, it is in this teasing balance between the banal and the extraorindary.

Klein was also an accomplished filmmaker. The exhibition itself opens with his first film Broadway by Light (1958) screened at monstrous size across the gallery wall. The film is a thundering montage of New York’s neon signage set to a brass-heavy jazz soundtrack. The slicey editing and claustrophobically tight framing make this gaudy Manhattan ode a cousin of both pop art and French New Wave cinema. Its theme is one that sums up much of Klein’s work: a deification of the city’s resplendent grime.

Moriyama, a decade younger than Klein, turned an equally loving eye on the darker side of his favourite city, Tokyo. It’s immediately clear, though, that his approach to street photography was rather different. While Klein is noted for favouring a wide-angle lens that allowed him to “cram as much as he could into each shot”, Moriyama’s work possesses a more singular, poetic vision. Gone are the wild, teeming streets of New York – the Japanese artist turned a more considered hand to such urban effluvia, cutting out the noise to present the viewer with a single, striking image: a stray dog, a fish head, a woman’s naked back.  Equally fond of the unrehearsed beauty of the street, he is evidently more comfortable in the role of auteur rather than documentarian. 

The photographs on show offer a sliver from his enormous oeuvre, most significantly his 1968 photobook Japan: A Photo Theatre. His portraits often use a suggestive detail to convey a moody whole. A row of rotting teeth comes to stand for an ageing street performer, a scar for the memory of an attack, a lace garter for a beautiful young woman. It’s a powerful message of authorship after Klein’s more objective approach to street photography, an admission of an overarching agenda, a stylized warning that we won’t be seeing the whole picture.

Born in Osaksa, Moriyama relocated to Tokyo in 1961. He conducted a long, licentious love affair with his adopted city. His story of Tokyo is sexier, more libidinous than Klein’s tales of New York. It’s defined by womb-like alleyways and obscured figures, by the suggestive smiles of make-up caked geishas, by an emphasis on the face, the eyes, the fingers, the mouth. His camera sometimes leaves the street and enters the bedroom, lingering over rumpled bed sheets, grainy limbs, legs squeezed into fishnet stockings. His portraits paint the city in lurid colours.

Moriyama’s penchant for obscurity grew over time. The exhibition features work from his 1971 photobook Farewell to Photography; in his own words “a book of pure sensations without meaning”. Here the artist toyed with the medium’s constraints, producing photographs so deeply clouded by grain and blur that they leave the realm of representation far behind. There is a pervasive feeling of melancholia. Light and shadow, form and feel, each take precedence over clear-cut imagery. Moriyama's flair as an image-abstractor in this series mirrors Klein’s own abstract paintings (a selection of which are also on show), but it is here that the similarities in their experimentations end. While Klein sought the clamorous beauty of the untamed city, Moriyama’s photographs are an investigation into the very heart of the medium of photography itself, a strenuous refusal of objectivity and of the camera’s promise to deliver honesty and truth.

Most visitors will leave this exhibitions making comparisons, or at least picking a favourite. Cleverly, though, the curators make no such judgements. But even if it never really happened, conjuring up an imaginary partnership is enoyable. One of these artists captured the din of the city, the other, the silence.

(William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955. © William Klein)

(William Klein, Elsa Maxwell’s Tory ball, Waldorf Hotel, New York 1955. © William Klein)

(William Klein, Piazza di Spagna, Rome 1960. © William Klein)

(William Klein, Bikini, Moscow, 1959. © William Klein)

(Daido Moriyama, Memory of Dog 2 1982. © Daido Moriyama)

(Daido Moriyama, provoke no. 2 1969.Tokyo Polytechnic University, © Daido Moriyama)

(Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011. Courtesy Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, © Daido Moriyama)

(Daido Moriyama, Japan Theatre Photo Album, 1968. © Daido Moriyama)

(Daido Moriyama, DOCUMENTARY ’78 (’86.4 Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo), 1986. © Daido Moriyama)

Daido Moriyama, Provoke no. 2 1969 (PHOTO: Tokyo Polytechnic University © Daido Moriyama)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism