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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories