OCA Study Visit :7. William Klein +Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern – January 2013
I’m catching up on Study Visits but so slowly!
What happened with this particular one was that I felt I needed to have more understanding of the links between these two photographers and why they are considered so important. This entailed me in quite a lot of reading and research and, as usual, I went along some highways and byways. What I’m aiming to do here is to summarise my understanding of the beginnings of both photographers and then concentrate upon their impact upon me. I clearly see how creative and talented each of them is but didn’t feel attracted towards their work as I viewed it in the Exhibition. My immediate reaction was that this type of work ‘isn’t me” and I’ve slowly worked out “Why?”
Reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Robert Frank’s “The Americans” gave me a greater understanding of some artistic perceptions of 1950s America and a movement towards spontanaeity of expression that showed itself as ‘stream of consciousness’/diaristic . In photography this was rough, raw, informal, and grainy , tending to capture the ‘indecisive’ rather than ‘decisive’ moment. Art was flavoured with some rebellion against ‘consumer America’; irony; a move towards existentialism and the life is for now attitude of the Beat Generation.
William Klein was born in New York in 1928 but has spent much of his adult life in Paris, whereas Frank was born in Switzlerand but settled in the United States. Whereas Frank put the searchlight of his lens over ‘America’, William Klein’s “New York” (full title “Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance witness Revels”) portrayed his view of one City. He had worked in Paris for 8 years and moved from abstract painting to abstract photography. He returned to New York with fresh eyes. He has said that he thought he could use what he learned in painting in photography.
The kinetic quality of New York, the kids, dirt, madness – I tried to find a photographic style that would come close to is. So I would be grainy and contrasted and black. I’d crop, blur, play with negatives. I didn’t see clean technique being right for New York.
(p. 12, Howarth & McLaren, (Ed) 2010)
I think I’m right in stating that Klein’s view in “New York” is less pessimistic than that of Frank and yet more aggressive and ‘in your face’. He comes through as delighting in the energy of the City, wanting to be in the thick of it, and certainly seems to me more of a ‘participant observer,’ whereas Frank strikes me as an ‘observer’. How far this is a matter of personality, upbringing and lifestyle is probably complex and hard to unravel. Similarly to Frank’s book, no American publisher was interested in Klein’s work. In the Tate video (c. 5.46 in on William Klein in Pictures) he says the New York editors believed the photos were the least publishable at the time being ‘too funky, grungy” and showing New York like a slum. His argument back was what did they know living on 5th Avenue as they did. The book appeared in Paris published by a very traditional publishing house.
Daido Moriyama was born in Osaka in 1939. How does he come into this equation and what links him with Klein? A review by Marco Bohr in Photomonitor reminds us that Klein initially practised as a painter and started taking photographs as a way to experiment with optical and visual perception , whereas Moriyama, “ turned to photography to deconstruct his perception of the urban landscape”. They both used photography, “as a method of visual interrogation, abstraction and deconstruction” both experimented with a wide range of techniques, not to mention photobooks.
Moriyama discovered Klein’s “New York’ Photobook whilst working as an assistant to Photographer Takeji Iwamiya. The Exhibition booklet refers to this as a crucial influence upon him as was Klein’s Photobook “Tokyo” photographed in 1961 and printed in 1964 – this functioned as a guide book to Japanese photographers in the mid to late 1960s including the then aspiring photographer Moriyama. Moriyama had moved to Tokyo in 1961, working for photographer Eikoh Hosae before turning freelance in 1964. Moriyama read Kerouac’s “On the Road” in the late 1960s and, in response began to photograph highways out of Tokyo, “shifting focus from cities and towns to the roads that connect them. The resulting book “Hunter” was dedicated to Kerouac. Moriyama photographed New York and produced his Photobook “ANOTHER COUNTRY IN NEW YORK in 1971.
The Exhibition was divided into two – each half being further divided into ‘rooms’ (7 for Klein and 6 for Moriyama) and was organised in such a way that you began with Klein’s work first, whilst being able to see snatches of Moriyama’s work through the partitions in the centre room (and vice versa). Bohr writes that this presentation “appears to promote the classic paradigm of a Japanese avant-garde apparently borrowing from the epicenters of cultural productions, New York and Paris” and that places much emphasis on individuals. ”either being inspired or inspiring others”. He points out that both photographers produced works, “in a very specific political, social and ideological environment that not only accepted their photographs, but also, that actively promoted them”. I’m sure I’m stereotyping here but it does seem to me that modern Japan, particularly its large city youth, does seem to be undergoing the type of changes prevalent in the New York of the 1950s – that clash between old values and the brash new world where an outgoing hip generation both questions and adapts everything for itself whilst artists, including photographers, observe, record and draw attention.
We were a large group of students and so we worked through on our own, falling into pairs and groups as we came together at times, often with one of the tutors, to discuss views.
I’ll now record brief impressions:
We began with his film “Broadway by Light” (1958) a portrait of New York through its gaudy neon signage. In some respects I thought it was of its time in terms of the quality of the film and colour. I remember travelling down Broadway, in a taxi in 2004, and feeling almost overwhelmed by the litter and sense of speediness with traffic rushing and horns blaring whilst skateboards weaved their dangerous path between them all. Thinking about it, as there must have been less traffic then (?) Klein chose well in using the signage to signal the pace.
As I continued, and absorbed the wide-angle views I began to think about the differences between Klein and Henri Cartier-Bresson – the one wanting to be seen and the other ‘unobtrusively’ capturing the decisive moment. Images were twice as large as life and lens distortion was obvious. I was caught by a photograph in Grand Central station where the only stillness came from an old woman, wearing a headscarf – just sitting – a punctum for me amongst the throng.
In Room 3 and 1960s Tokyo – carefully sequenced photobooks yet capturing the haste and bustle of the street. Splodgy, early film; in your face (reminded me of Joel Meyerowitz, b. 1938 but colour is his medium), grainy b+w.
Room 4 and back to Klein’s beginnings as a painter; his early wooden panels and use of typography, where I recognized the influence of the Bauhaus movement.
Klein came over to me as a large intellect, and extrovert presence with a great zest for life, and continuously experimenting with all types of artistic expression. From the video of him wandering the streets and engaging with people I could see that, despite his age, he still retains this psychic energy. Watching the video I found him engaging and easy to listen to. He talks about the way in which his contact sheets bring back all the memories of when he took them and his fascination with faces. To be honest I found it quite overwhelming and was questioning myself continuously around this. Is it to do with the different ways we see? I’m naturally long-sighted and tend to draw back to see something clearly. If something is too close I get a feeling of slight claustrophobia. Similarly, I don’t like it if someone shoves a camera in my face and feel very reluctant to do the same to other people; and yet I do engage with people. I actually did some web searches to see if there is any evidence that long-sighted people tend to be more introverted and vice versa but couldn’t find any conclusive proof
I felt a similar sense of motion as with Klein but it was different in the sense of his photography being even more grainy and amorphous. There is a quote at the beginning of the Exhibition Guide:
For me photography is not about an attempt to create a two-dimensional work of art, but by taking photo after photo, I come closer to truth and reality at the very intersection of the fragmentary nature of the world and my own personal sense of time.
To achieve this Moriyama moved away from accepted conventions in Japanese post Second World War photography. He photographed things on the move, shooting without looking in the viewfinder; working often at night, in poor light, and using slow shutter speeds and deliberate camera shake. This is an aesthetic in Japanese known as are, bure, boke: blurry, grainy, unfocussed. (G. Bauret, 2012, in R. Delpire, 2010).
I’d stopped to have various brief discussions with some of the other students as I was walking around and, at one point, Keith and I got to talking about language and culture and how much that affects both the photographer and the viewer’s perception of the work. We may share some cultural attitudes and nuances with European and American artists but how possible is this with a country like Japan?
There is much about Moriyama’s fascination with the Shinjuku district in Tokyo which began in 1965 and continues. He talks about this in the Tate video Daido Moriyama in Pictures and how he sees it as a “stadium of people’s desires (2.02 in). Moriyama takes us to a room above a bar, saying “I think of this place as my room in Shinjuku. We see him at night prowling the streets. I say ‘prowling’ because that’s the way I see it. For me, Klein’s wandering produces “This is how I’m seeing the World” and I still get a sense of his retaining some distance and recognition of himself as a separate individual. However, through the grain and almost seeping of black into white, I imagine Moriyama as edging towards that boundary between ‘me’ and ‘not-me’ that can lead to loss of self. I wondered if he is looking for a grounded sense of self as he walks those streets. I was caught by something he said in the video which connects with this for me.
Japanese people often talk of home as a place where you are born, grow up and everyone is there but I don’t have such a home. I’ve been moving a lot since I was a child. I am creating my own home by connecting pieces of images from my imagination and things I saw as a child (3.15 in ibid).
What he said very much reminded me of how Elif Shafak, the Turkish author likened her imagination to being her only suitcase when she was travelling around with her mother (see here). In fact it was listening to her that made me think about the whole issue of language and culture in relation to understanding Art and encouraged me to explore this further.
One further aspect is the Black Dog, the image that is almost Moriyama’s signature and, to me, very much conveys that sense of prowling in the dark. He describes how the dog was ‘just there’ as he stepped out of his hotel to do a photo shoot, “and this dog instantly became a part of me” (c. 4.48 in). I can almost feel his attraction towards it as I look at the image. It also reminded me of how William Churchill referred to his depressive periods as “The Black Dog”. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that I think Moriyama generally suffers the same, although I know that when he was young he did go through a period where he felt the world was fragmenting and questioned why he took photographs (cf his series Farewell to Photography).
Maybe, though, the style of Moriyama’s images; lack of clear form and blurring of darkness into light does give me an impression of what it might feel like to be drawn towards the darker side of life; the slide into depression. I’m probably allowing my imagination too much rein here but thinking along those lines does help me to understand my own reaction to his photography.
When I have a strong negative reaction towards a particular photographer’s work then I really do need to analyse “Why”. I read about their life/background and try to look at it all from their point of view and then translate that into photography. In fact I’m sure I work harder than I do when I feel drawn towards a photographer.
William Klein said something that very much struck home for me. He said that when he was photographing children in New York he was also photographing his memories. I generally try to avoid photographing children because of all the issues involved but I did post one on the blog recently here – a much softer and more innocent feel to it than Klein’s boy with toy gun . Thinking about this again in terms of Klein’s remark, I realised that I was one of those children and remembered the make believe games we played; my gang of boys, and how I loved climbing trees and always had dirty knees. The streets and local parks were my playground with none of this middle-class way of inviting friends home for tea! Thanks for reminding me William.
6th June 2013
Delpire, R (Ed),(2012) Photofiled: Daido Moriyama, Thames & Hudson, London
Howarth, S and McLaren, S (ed) (2010) Street Photography Now ,Thames & Hudson Ltd, London
Klein, W, (2012) William Klein: ABC, Tate Publishing, London
http://www.photomonitor.co.uk/2012/11/klein-moriyama/ [accessed 13.5.2013)