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.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.