Review – Klein and Moriyama, Tate Modern

Review – William Klein and Daido Moriyama, Tate Modern

by Lena Cheshire

This duel exhibition of the work of William Klein and Daido Moriyama makes its intention clear from the outset. You step into a darkened room, empty save for one entire wall showing Klein’s 1958 film, Broadway by Light. Assailed by the flashing neon and distorted light reflections that tell their own story of New York, a blurb on the wall informs us that Orson Welles believed it ‘the first film I’ve seen in which colour was absolutely necessary’[1]. It is an early example of pop art, and Klein’s experimentation with editing and visual style here is reminiscent of the French New Wave[2] movement – understandable, as he has spent much of his life in France. So this is our introduction to the work of William Klein – a giant wall of bright and moving images that cannot be stepped away from, a screen that folds New York  around you in garish colour and vibrant life.

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Still from Broadway by Light

It is a theme that continues. The layout chosen by the Tate is intelligent in walking us through the careers of two men whose styles compliment and contrast each other. It is not a passive exhibition, partly due to the innovative layout, and partly because of the vibrancy of the work on show. This is a side-by-side retrospective of two artists whose visions are linked, yet independent of each other. The influence of Klein on Moriyama becomes apparent in the second half of the exhibition; the first half is dedicated solely to Klein.

The next two rooms take us into what may be Klein’s most famous, and influential, work. His street photography was criticized in the 1950s for supposed lack of technique, due to its experimentation with flash, wide-angle, grab shots, abstraction, blur, close-up, deformations, and harsh printing[3]. His improvisational style was initially dismissed; however, his most famous work – ‘Life is Good, and Good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels’, a book now regarded as one of photography’s most influential works[4] – reveals the ‘ecstatic and ravished vengeance’[5] of his photographic style. His images are not violent in themselves, focusing on people or city scenes that, while imbued with hostile energy, keep that energy under the surface. And so we are invited to walk through New York, Rome and Tokyo, and see the similarities of city life in the energy and faces of their people.

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Candy Store, New York, 1955

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Broadway and 103rd Street, New York, 1955

This section of the exhibition also shows some of Klein’s most famous fashion photography. He had returned to New York in 1954 to work for Vogue, at the same time as compiling the photographs that would become ‘Life is Good…’. In doing so, he brought a sense of irony and satire to fashion that helped redefine the traditional image of haute couture modelling. Klein took his models out of the studio and onto the street, making the environment almost as important as the clothes with his ‘electrifyingly modern’ energy, and preferred use of models who looked ‘tough’, as though they belonged in an urban rather than a classic setting[6].

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Mirrors on the Roof, 1959

We see an example of that with this photograph – the women paralleling the skyscrapers makes the environment integral to the picture, rather than just a backdrop to the scene. This is characteristic of Klein, and the exhibition is effective in making it clear how important the city is in his work, as well as highlighting his raw technique, which did not conform to any established photographic rules of the time.

However, Klein is not just a photographer, and the effectiveness of the Tate’s exhibition lies in giving a complete taste of his work. Klein began as an abstract painter at the Sorbonne, and another room shows us some of his early panels. His use of typography in his abstracts draws a link to his later use of street signage and advertising as a feature of his photography and film work. This is further highlighted by another room showing excerpts of his films Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, and The Model Couple – effectively drawing together the dynamism of his photography and art into a new medium. The film excerpts are a riot of noise, music, chanting, riots, gunshots and car horns followed by the silence in the aftermath, shots of burnt-out cars and people in a quiet circle, holding hands. The imagery is all the more powerful for the juxtaposition of noise and peace.

The Klein section concludes with a room devoted to huge blow-ups of his contact sheets, where he has applied bold colour to highlight his choice of image among the many he has taken.

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Once again, it shows Klein’s vision of linking mediums and highlights his restless creative energy, apparent before in his experimentation with raw photographic style. Commenting on this technique, Klein has said, ‘The jubilation of painting recalled the celebration of taking the photo’[7], – and this exhibition of his work is certainly effective in its jubilant celebration of an innovative man’s career.

We are led from the final vibrancy of Klein, to the grainy, overexposed world of Moriyama’s ‘Accidents’ – a collection of his work that focuses on scenes of destruction, such as car crashes and shipwrecks. His style is immediately apparent, and the comparison with Klein inevitable; both favour black and white, and blurred overexposure that can lend a surreal quality.

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Smash-up, 1969

However, other influences are also apparent. There are a  collection of photographs portraying goods on supermarket shelves, highlighting Moriyama’s interest in consumerism, and repetition of images that lean towards abstraction. Moriyama has made no secret of the influence of Warhol on his work, and it is made clear in this exhibition. Our attention is also drawn to the political edge of the art; the rough printing and blurring are described as an explicit rejection of photography’s claim to objective truth, for example, and information is given on Moriyama’s involvement with Provoke, a Japanese avant-garde magazine in the 1960s with a confrontational stance which matched the political unrest of the time[8]. The display leads to the feeling that his work is focused beyond experimenting with technique, but rather making explicit statements of a political viewpoint.

Outside influences are also obvious in the next room. ‘The Road That Drives People’ is the initial focus, but the entire collection here is settled on roads in and out of Tokyo. Once again dark and overexposed, they give the impression of grainy snapshots of memory – a sentiment Moriyama seems to be aiming for, with his description of photographs as ‘the history of memory’[9]. The photo-essay came about from Moriyama’s reading of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road[10], and the influence of the Beat writers seems clear in the hazy, unfocused imagery.

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Tomei Expressway, 1968

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Tomei Epressway, 1969

Powerful as these photographs are, the effectiveness of Moriyama seems to come alive – at least, to my way of thinking – when his focus is on his investigations into form. The next room spotlights his close-ups of everyday objects, from machinery, to flowers, to items of clothing, and the close examination of texture and form is a truly visceral experience. You can practically feel the velvet of a sofa cushion and hat, and the hard, rough surface of a rubber tyre on asphalt road. This room also contains what the photo Moriyama considers his best[11]

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Tights, 1987

…his girlfriend’s legs in fishnets. It is the perfect example of how Moriyama can bring everyday objects to new life, and make us see them with fresh eyes.

He is also innovative in his use of medium, as shown in a full-room installation recreating his studio in individual polaroid images. The effect is striking, as it immerses the observer, with only spaces between the images to prove the effect is unreal.

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But perhaps the most striking image is saved for last. Moriyama’s most famous photograph, Stray Dog, is given a room almost to itself. Not simply one portrait of it, but many, to show Moriyama’s interest in the reproduction of images. Japan’s art since WWII has linked to metaphorical images of stray dogs, and Moriyama’s famous picture may well speak to a sense of defeat that has permeated the national consciousness[12].

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Stray Dog, 1971

Whatever the reason for its appeal, the Tate exhibition  – for both men – is a triumphant celebration of two artistic visionaries. As the curator, Simon Baker, puts it; ‘Moriyama’s work is often associated with the wild, blurred, out-of-focus aesthetic that Klein unleashed on the world’[13] – and while we certainly receive that impression of Klein, Moriyama is no less powerful for being influenced by him.

* * *


[2] Craig Philips, http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/fnwave1.jsp, (accessed 24/01/13)

[6] Polly Devlin, Vogue Book of Fashion Photography (The Condé Nast Publications Ltd., 1979), pg. 138.

[7] Simon Baker (curator), Tate Modern Guidebook, pg.7

[10] Simon Baker (curator), Tate Modern Guidebook, pg. 3

[12] Leo Rubinfien, Art in America, 1979 http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/06/theory-daido-moriyama-investigations-of.html, (accessed 24/01/13)

[13] Simon Baker (ed.), Daido Moriyama (Tate Publishing, 2012).

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