Sunday, 20 January 2013

Klein and Moriyama at The Tate Modern

Klein and Moriyama

One cold Saturday I braved the elements and met up with some fellow students plus three tutors to take in the massive Moriyama/Klein retrospective exhibition; this is my attempt to put into words my impressions of the exhibition, the way it was displayed, the work being exhibited, some of the images themselves and my overall feelings about what I was seeing. A potted history of each photographer should be here, oh and what I feel I gained from the experience. Therefore this will probably prove to be a rather long post!

A good place to begin would be the question posed in the pre-exhibition information and at the very beginning of the visit: Why display these two photographers together? My thoughts and some newer ones were brought up by other students attending and tutor Rob Bloomfield.

Ideas were that they both:

· Captured large cities
· Explored each other’s cities
· Shot street photography
· Introduce grain to a lot of their images
· Shot predominantly in black and white
· Broke established photographic rules
· Captured a period of change within their cultures
· Published photobooks
· Similar in age (Klein in his 80’s Moriyama in his 70’s)
· Are still working

Moriyama has also cited Klein as a major influence on his work which ties them together.

Moving onto the way the exhibition has been curated by Simon Baker: on presenting your ticket you got handed a brilliant little booklet which included a map of the exhibition and outlined what was in each room. The exhibition space was divided into several rooms, each photographer was displayed separately but room 3 was “open plan” so you could view the work simultaneously. Klein, whose work is described as exuding “a determinedly urban, combative energy,” was first up and I felt that Moriyama came in a poor second having previously viewed Klein, but more of that as I go on.

The rooms were high ceiling-ed walls were either white or pale grey and the lighting was a mix of overhead diffused lighting and spotlights. Klein’s images were large imposing prints whilst Moriyama’s were on a smaller scale. All used thin, plain black frames and were butted up against each other emphasising the crowded, claustrophobic nature of the images. 

Observation of how to curate an exhibition. Klein at the Tate.

The labeling was unobtrusive and carried the minimum of information, title (usually just a place name or single word), date and the date printed which in Klein’s case usually said “later” which emphasised that these were produced for exhibitions rather than the original prints. Photo-books were displayed in glass cabinets around the room and it was interesting to see the images in a different/original context. Writing this now I wish I had scrutinised them more carefully as I find myself asking questions that I can’t answer, like were any of the open pages the same as on the walls? Were they displayed next to different images? If so did it alter their impact?

image of Klein's abstract work which also shows the gallery itself

It must be very difficult to know, when looking back, what pieces to send that summarise a life’s work. In the BBC program The Many Lives of William Klein (which at the time of writing this was still available on YouTube ) Klein in seen working with his assistant who held up huge prints made specifically for this exhibition. The original purposes for some were either for photo-books or fashion magazines and not intended to be this size. I wonder if one of the reasons they were enlarged now is the fashion for large imposing room filling exhibition photographs. I have to admit that they work on this scale and can withstand close scrutiny.

Klein, who now lives in Paris, was born in New York in 1928, to a fairly well to do Jewish parents. However his father invested heavily in the stock market which saw their fortunes change due to the Wall Street Crash. Klein was then brought up in a poorer district of New York and “lived” on the streets making them the subject of his street photography, capturing the ethnic melting pot of his surrounding areas. To most Klein is thought of as a street/fashion photographer but he trained as a painter under Fernand L├ęger, experimented with photograms and textiles and has also made several films. I also wonder if his study of sociology coloured the way he viewed the world.

Examples from his vast range of work were on display. Despite having no training as a photographer, Klein won the Prix Nadar in 1957 for “New York”, a book of photographs taken during a brief return to his hometown. He saw how after the war commercialism and the love of money were changing people’s attitudes and lifestyles. The way he styled his book, the written commentaries were heavily influenced by the tabloid newspapers.

Klein states he has a love hate relationship with New York and I think that you can see this especially in his film “Broadway by Light” (1958) shown in room one. Not following a set narrative and shot after living in Paris for some time, it depicts Times Square as fragmented, with flashing neon lights, advertisements, workers changing signage all set against a background of discordant jazz music. There are direct comparisons that can be made with his still photography, both having a dynamic sense of movement. It was quite disorientating yet I feel captures the essence of the time; what it must have been like coming out of the Second World War and being confronted by new ideas and technologies, the clash of the poorer neighbourhoods on top affluent Broadway, stepping metaphorically from the dark and into the light. Klein was one of the few photographers who dared to go to Harlem and photograph it’s streets at a time when racial tensions were still quite high. In his photography he uses both wide-angle and telephoto lenses, natural lighting and motion blur to great effect, capturing the feeling of the life, movement and the bustle of humanity in a city that never sleeps. 

Klein at the Tate

The world of fashion, which Klein knows well, became the subject for his first feature film, “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1956) which, like his other two fiction features, “Mr. Freedom” (1969) and “The Model Couple” (1977) had a satirical approach. Klein is noted for his ironic approach to his work and the humour of situations, the rapport he has with his subjects shines out, although some people in the less staged groups shot do seem to eye him suspiciously. In the film he comments that in every group frame he has someone observing him and this seems to be the case.

One of the questions often asked and again debated during this study day, was does our own personality/personal experience reflect on what and how we take photographs and can we ever divorce ourselves totally from the process? I think quite clearly the answer is “yes” to the former and “I don’t think so” to the latter. Klein and Moriyama’s approach maybe similar: the motion blur, irregular framing, breaking established photographic rules, but in other ways I feel they differ. Klein shoots on film whereas Moriyama now enjoys using digital. Moriyama seems to look inward, putting more of himself into the imagery, how he is feeling, a projection of himself as much as the cities he is capturing, he takes images that are metaphorical “self-portraits” whereas Klein appears to look outwards, his personality/ideas shape the people he is capturing, he converses with them, it seems to be more a case of “this is what I see, this situation amuses me and I’m poking fun at it,” or “I am showing you what you fail to acknowledge.” He seems to explore himself through what he sees, and he even admits that a lot of images in his book on New York are self-portraits and memories. Both are interested in the world but whereas Klein captures external events that reflect his memories and experiences (the children playing with the gun reflect Klein both as the sometime “hard guy” and the sometime “angel”) Moriyama? I refer you to the ubiquitous stray dog… It’s quite difficult to put into words what I mean about that but hopefully anyone reading this will understand my attempt…

William Klein New York 1956

Mrs Clive asked whether I was sure that people cannot divorce themselves from photography because surely if given an advertising campaign you would have to follow a certain remit. I replied that I thought even in this instance your own style, which surely would be shaped by your experiences would come to the fore. Klein being a perfect example of this, his image of the hat wearing model smoking caused uproar at the time because she was not wearing gloves or using a cigarette holder and in fact, it was never used in an American publication. Another example I could cite is Lee Friedlander and the New Cars (1964) advertising campaign he shot for Harpers Bazaar. They did not approve his images and pulled them. It therefore seems to me that you don’t remove yourself from the process rather that the client removes you from the publication ;).

Klein 1958

Getting back to the exhibition, the images were compiled and arranged by Klein in 2006 and shows “his refusal to treat the past as sacred…his willingness to revisit old images through new technologies and digital printing techniques.” One of the videos tells us how he makes sure all his prints are made in his own studio, meaning he has total control. I think it is quite clear that despite the motion blur and haphazard feel of framing Klein is always in control of his images and the results are what he was after. When he discovered a certain effect by accident, for example blur, he would deliberately replicate it.

Room two displayed a mix of his street photography from different cities and huge poster sized fashion shots, this is where I think that the closeness of the images worked really well. The images of the street revealed an eclectic mix of humanity which display the slight nuances of each city yet conveyed to me the impression that no matter where you go people are intrinsically the same. I examined one of the large fashion shots, Mirrors and Roofs, quite closely. Interestingly enough this image also seems to be known as Mirrors on The Roof or Roof and Mirrors depending on what you are looking up!

Mirrors and Roofs 1962

I was fascinated by the rules which Klein followed as much as by the ones he broke, the diagonals as leading lines, pin sharp images yet the models are placed on a roof in an obvious urban setting, mirrors reflect odd angles, he amputates limbs and there are many distracting elements that you are never quite sure where to look. In many of his fashion shots he took the models into the street and the world became his studio, the passersby the unpaid extras. His use of the telephoto lens compresses the images making them look even more claustrophobic and chaotic. Examining Mirrors and Roofs even closer you could see the veins in the models’ feet which bulged slightly over their shoes, the stitches in the hems of the dresses, slight puckering where their underwear wasn't smooth, their figures and skin were all so natural looking. I’m not saying that the images were never re-touched but they were a far cry from the excessive air brushing and photo-shopping that goes on today. I really like the way he approached fashion photography by putting his own stamp on the images, cocking a snook at the establishment whilst producing images that worked for the industry at the time and are iconic photographs today.

I loved the huge images of the contact sheets complete with bright primary colours. These came about due to invitations received in the mid 80’s to exhibit his work; photography was beginning to become museum art. Klein returned to his contact sheets and was inspired to make a series of short films in which photographers discuss their working practices and to also blow up extracts from his contact sheets, replacing the marker pen (indicating the rejects and final choices) with painted brush marks. These images made me think of Jim Goldberg and his series of photographs with writing and various items attached to them and find I’m drawn more and more to the idea of photography incorporating mixed media.

Contacts Klein at the Tate

In the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s Klein went back to the streets, produced more photo-books continued to make documentaries and review his career to date. In his 80’s he still photographs the streets and reinvents himself time after time whilst retaining the fundamental style that is his own. The blur, grain and frenetic framing capture the atmosphere and the moment in more detail than a sharply captured, correctly exposed detailed image ever would have. There is a realism and honesty to his photography which I love.

So…onto Moriyama Maybe I should have written about him first…following Klein in both exhibition and write up I feel a bit drained and even though with my screen I can walk away and come back (which I have done) I think the enthusiasm has waned slightly. This doesn't seem to be just down to the overwhelming amount of material to see/write about but also down to the imagery on display. Klein’s work filled me with a love for life, seemed to project an energy, whereas Moriyama seemed to remind me of JK Rowling’s Dementors which suck all the life and happiness out of you.

Moriyama's Stray Dog

He was born in Osaka, in 1938, the son of an insurance salesman. Moriyama moved frequently with his father’s work, and never had a clear sense of personal roots. Like Klein he was talented as an artist but trained in graphic design, falling into photography by chance; whilst running his own design studio he came into contact with photographers and was drawn by the freedom and activity it presented.

Moving to Tokyo, Moriyama was open to the cultural changes after the war “We found the mixture of the Japanese and the Western already there. We just accepted it. There was an American air-force base near where I grew up. The Korean War was on. I saw the planes going in and out, the American airmen in the bars with beautiful Japanese girls. It felt exciting.”

William Klein’s book Life is Good and Good For You in New York (1956) was critical in inducing Moriyama to take pictures himself. Another work he cites is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road  (1957) “The narrative is always moving, always looking at different things at the same time.” This is the feeling I get from his images, nothing stays still, nothing seems linked, there is no underlying theme beyond capture what is there, capture what catches my eye, capture what interests me. I may have read his work totally incorrectly but that is my first impression, but that maybe due to the flagging of the spirit…

Japan, a Photo Theater, (1968) his first book, concentrated on the strippers, actors and nightclub performers of Tokyo’s entertainment districts. His use of heavy grain and saturated blacks came to the fore and established his style. 

Moriyama Japan , a Photo Theater (1968)

Moriyama then explored abstraction even further, looking through windscreens onto rain-swept roads, at deserted car parks and battered hotels. Unlike Klein, whose subjects seem to be the centre of the focus, a celebration of life, Moriyama’s figures seem to “dissolve into blackness and blur,” a despair at life. “For me, capturing what I feel with my body is more important than the technicalities of photography. If the image is shaking, it’s OK, if it’s out of focus, it’s OK. Clarity isn't what photography is about…It may look like I’m just pointing the camera at what’s in front of me. But I’m trying to photograph what people see, but don’t notice – something that’s mysterious and unknown in everyday life.” 

Moriyama Fly, Suwa City, Negano (1982)

In his 1972 book Farewell Photography, he wanted to “deconstruct photography” frustrated with his own photography he gave his publisher a pile of damaged negatives and told him to print them up anyway that suited him. The resultant “indecipherable mass of blurred and marked images” confused me, I’m not sure what I was supposed to be seeing, but guess that’s fine as Moriyama says “The book was incomprehensible to everyone, which was what I intended.” 

Moriyama Farewell to Photography (1972)

Then came work that I found I preferred, his explorations of light and dark, the surreal and subtly erotic studies in form – for example the image of legs in fishnet, the cherry blossoms and more traditional portraits. I don’t think this suggests I prefer more traditional photography in general just that I didn't like Moriyama’s approach to breaking it. Or maybe I didn't like the way his inner self spoke to the inner me. Talking to other students they too found his images to be cold and lifeless. I also don’t think that it is his dark subject matter; I have no problem with Nan Golding’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. (1986) 

Moriyama How to Make a Beautiful Picture (1987)

In various videos he speaks about how he loves cities, how each one no matter how it looks is a work of art, that they have their own scent, a sensuality; that they are flooded with desires and they allow those desires to be filled. For me his images didn’t project that at all. Of course it could be that although this is how he feels about cities this isn't what he sets out to portray…or it could be that at the moment I am just not at all in tune with his vision. Japanese culture is full of tradition and rules, hiding your emotions so maybe although Moriyama is breaking some rules this are where his background reflects in the imagery he produces. Gareth reiterated the thought that photography is not a universal language.

His grainy, dark off kilter images in some instances were hard interpret, but again maybe that was his intention…he took the image not to tell one story but to allow us to tell our own. In many he was in a dark place, I recognise parts of that in myself and don’t want to. He prefers black and white images, describing colour as vulgar while black and white photography is abstract and symbolic. Not sure that I agree with colour being vulgar but can’t think of a reasoned argument at the moment…may come back to that later on. He thinks colour is vulgar, prefers B&W (says that black and white is a dream world. Thinking about it, some of his images do have a nightmarish feel about them) yet admits that sometimes he will take a photograph of just a colour simply because he likes the colour. It was fascinating to watch the video recommended in the pre-visit information and see how much alteration was carried out in post-production. Digital images were desaturated, the contrast greatly increased, blacks boosted, it made me wonder if his intentions were to capture details that people do not usually notice why he seemed to suck all the detail out by making them so dark and contrasty?

Moriyama has a casual approach to photography believing there is no right or wrong, the same as Klein, and I think that sometimes as students we get too bogged down in the rules, or have tutors that want us to be too bogged down by rules. I know I feel at the moment I have lost the joy of wanting to pick up my camera and it stares malevolently at me with its one eye. Maybe it was the selection of photographs presented to us but what he says in some of the film shorts did not reflect in what I was seeing. He speaks of reaching out with his senses, of trying to feel everything around him, that the past cannot be captured by the present, only the present can be captured in the moment. In some ways this is true, what is there is there NOW but the past shapes who we are, what interests us, why we photograph what we photograph, whether it’s because we embrace our culture or are rejecting it or are just recording how it is altering. Moryiama’s images for me don’t show the external, more his own internal feelings, I don’t get a sense of the city; I get more of a sense of him.

Moriyama at the Tate

The other difference I felt between the two photographers is that Klein seems to acknowledge there was a darker side to New York, be it the rampant commercialism or the abject poverty-the slums people did not want to recognise, yet he embraced the life and energy of both, leaving the viewer to read between the lines and discover for themselves the hardship behind the smiling faces or the decadence of a wild night out. 

William Klein Elsa Maxwell's Toyball at The Waldorf  (1955)
Moriyama on the other hand jumped into the seedy low life side of Tokyo and displays a very depressing picture. “ I've never been attracted to places that are very hygienic…I like a touch of squalor.” 

Moriyama at the Tate

One reviewer states that his images are “notable for their dispassionate, morally ambiguous tone”… I can’t get my head around a photographer who talks about sensuality then producing something supposedly dispassionate and morally ambiguous?

Another question raised whilst viewing this section of the exhibition was does Moriyama shoot randomly or is there great thought behind putting together his different bodies of work. Again, trying not to sit on the fence I think the answer is both, but I err towards the random as he is quoted as saying “For me photographs are taken in the eye before you've even thought what they mean. That’s the reality I’m interested in capturing.” Any sophistication then comes from his editing process, which images he chooses to put together. It will also depend on the individual body of work…I mean if you are taking a series of images all about women in tights would be pretty random to suddenly have one of crowds on a subway station ;)

Some colour work was on display, the Polaroid/Polaroid mosaic (1997), and while I thought it clever it also left me feeling a bit “meh”. Was a bit of a “seen it before” jobby and I don’t think he was the first.

There is a suggestion by other students that his work is better observed on a smaller scale, where the images are seen together in the context of the whole body of work, this maybe the case but I think any exploration will be done online rather than buying his books. I treated myself to the Klein exhibition book but walked away from the Moriyama Tales of Tono, maybe that was a mistake but not one I think I will live to regret. However on looking more at his images online there are a few more that I do like, so can't sweepingly state "I don't like Moriyama!"

What have I learnt? Firstly I need to break out of my own dark place and pick up my camera again. Secondly throw away some of the clutter of rules and just “go take pictures.” Be more experimental with post processing, that careful editing makes the series and while an individual image maybe “the one” if it jars within the set, think carefully before including it; it may yet have it’s day elsewhere. Be open to influence of everything, sights, smells, other media, other photographers. Don’t worry that it’s been done before our own background and baggage will make it different. Don’t stress over amputated limbs or messy composition. Scale and presentation matter, consider your target audience/clientele, will mixed media images work as well when photographed in a book/magazine as they would in an exhibition? Think about does it matter if the photographs don’t have an instant message or have a message at all?

To conclude I will end how I began and pick up on the thread throughout my write up that whilst I really enjoyed this exhibition and found exploring the work of the two men extremely fascinating, if I had to vote for either it would be Klein. To me he is the truer ‘polymath’ or ‘universal genius’; his career not only covers different subject matter but also different media. He has been successful in producing film, commercials, textile design, fashion photography for posters and magazines. Other people described as polymaths include Leonardo De Vinci, Aristotle and Jean Cocteau, to name a few. I think Klein would hold his own in this company I’m not so sure about Moriyama. 

1 comment:

  1. Very in-depth. You put a lot into describing how it all looked and the impressions it gave you. My write-up is waiting for me... 'The language of photography' is the area I'm pondering on and how much our own culture shapes our photography even when we think we are 'breaking the rules'.

    It was good to see you again and I look forward to seeing you more often in future.