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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear