Tate’s current ‘blockbuster’ brings together the works of William Klein and Daido Moriyama, exploring modern urban life in New York and Tokyo from 1950s to the present day. The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the visual affinity between their urgent, blurred and grainy styles of photography and also their shared desire to convey street life and political protest, from anti-war demonstrations and gay pride marches to the effects of globalisation and urban deprivation.
Heading into the Tate Modern exhibition. Own photograph.
The exhibition doesn’t so much juxtapose the two artists as present two completely separate exhibitions that run parallel to each other and interlock in the middle, like a nicely fitted jigsaw. We are meant to be able to see the influence of Klein on Moriyama. Yes, there are no doubt obvious aesthetic similarities but wouldn’t the influence be easier to trace if the two artists were shown side by side? The exhibition fails to present a dialogue between the two – the shows are just too separate but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as both, in their own right, are fabulous.
Klein + Moriyama exhibition. Image via http://pcruciatti.photoshelter.com.
The exhibition opens with Klein whose work, for me, has a more inherent power. Maybe this is because I was blown away by him in the first half but I don’t think I’m that fickle. The several rooms of Klein’s powerful images are mind-blowing to say the least.
Klein’s enormous prints knock us sideways. They are clear and crisp and the images are juxtaposed one after the other after the other. It’s a beautifully curated exhibition on almost-white walls (thank heavens that Tate’s grey hasn’t reared its head).
Born in New York in 1928, Klein was an art lover from a young age and came to photography after a meandering path where he touched on design and painting (room four of the exhibition includes some of his early abstract wooden panels and it is nice to see his origins). His early experiments with photography were so impactful that he was offered a job at Vogue and his career as a fashion photographer kicked off with great momentum. Concurrently, he began documenting the city in a photo diary that eventually formed the basis of his first book. There was no stopping this man. Unusually, Klein wanted the viewer to be aware of his own presence at the scene and provoke a response.
William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955. Image via www.independent.co.uk.
Perhaps because Klein has worked in so many forms, he has always been versatile when transferring ideas from one medium to another and the exhibition progresses to show his experimentation with techniques such as photograms and enlarged photographs graffitied with enamel paint.
Klein is not just a photographer but a documentarian, graphic designer and filmmaker – sections of his film are looped throughout the exhibition. Klein works in the present. His works are very powerful and this is an all-encompassing exhibition; this is Klein’s photographs as they are meant to be seen.
William Klein, Piazza di Spagna, Rome 1960. Image via http://thewomensroomblog.com.
And then halfway through the exhibition turns to Daido Moriyama. The two artists are so different yet they sit alongside each other seamlessly. I think this level of harmony is rare. Tate hasn’t compared or contrasted, they haven’t commented – it’s up to us if we do that.
Moriyama does not go for such a polished aesthetic – his photos are grim and gritty. They lack the passion that we came to expect from Klein in the first half of this double retrospective. Moriyama’s works are much more introspective, playing with light and dark, abstracting his scenes so we have to search within the image in a bid to reveal its subject. He claims his approach was simple – he wanted to show the truth.
Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011. Image via www.independent.co.uk.
His early works can be seen as coming from a Japanese documentary tradition but even at a young age this artist stood out. He continually questions his subjects and his images explore and seek to understand the very nature of the urban experience. Many of his photographs present a cross-section of society, looking at anonymous passers-by one alongside the other. Moriyama uses photography as a form of investigation – both into city life and into the medium itself. In the third room we see his series Farewell Photography from 1972 where the images are dominated, and often obliterated, by blurs, grains and scratches. We see a mass of abstract grey. His images often have deep personal meanings, relating to his own experiences and sense of place. These grainy grey-scale works appear like fleeting memories that could fade away at any point.
Looking at Moriyama’s works. Own photograph.
This is Tate Modern’s biggest photography exhibition since its inception but it’s not really one exhibition. There is no evidence that these two artists are properly connected which is possibly why the dialogue fails – it’s unclear how well they knew each other and how much inspiration they took from one another’s work. But, they are both sensational photographers who produced revelatory work. The monochrome works of both artists push photography to its large-scale limits. Whether it’s one or two exhibitions, it’s overwhelming and highly enjoyable.
William Klein + Daido Moriyama is at Tate Modern until 20th January 2013, www.tate.org.uk.