Having just landed at Gatwick from a(nother) holiday in Havana, I was lucky enough to be offered a place on this study tour due to a last minute cancellation. My small disclaimer is that, as I had no idea I would be attending, there was no time for research and I have not yet had chance to follow up on the OCA recommended films or any reviews. So here are my uninformed ramblings….
We began outside the Tate Modern, in the chilly London air, by briefly discussing the link between these two photographers. Tutor Rob Bloomfield and various students pointed out some of the connections, such as their use of photobooks, shooting mainly in black and white and their approach to street photography, particularly in New York and Tokyo. Moriyama has also cited Klein as a major influence on his own work.
The exhibition is brilliantly curated (by Simon Baker) – very nicely paced with a mix of large-scale images, film, smaller prints, paintings and books (mainly from Martin Parr’s private collection, it seems) in vitrines. Room Three of each retrospective is half open to the other, which emphasises the relationship. Klein was born in NYC in 1928 but has spent much of his life in Paris. Moriyama was born in Osaka in 1938 but moved to Tokyo in the early 60s. Both are still working.
Klein’s Broadway by Light film (1958) shows New York, initially through abstract neon signage at night then panning out to buildings in daytime, with an experimental jazz soundtrack. It is quite disorientating as the close-ups of the signs don’t make much sense in isolation. The music is like that of a Hitchcock thriller and the images seemed to mirror the sounds – pulsating lights and tense human movements. There is no obvious journey for the viewer – it is more just an experience of sight and sound, which conveys some of the intensity of Manhattan. I was left with a sense of unease and I noticed most people did not stay to watch the whole film. An interesting portrait of NYC though, and presumably quite avant-garde at the time of making. I wondered how much Tom Waits was inspired by Klein – this felt like it might have had some influence on the movie Big Time. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094743/
This exhibition was my first proper exposure to Klein’s street photography and I was blown away. He is very provocative, deliberately getting up close to his subjects. Someone is looking directly – and often suspiciously - at him in almost all the shots with crowds. These are messy wide-angle images, over-spilling the frame, powerful depictions of the chaos and claustrophobia, the parade of humanity in New York. Some images include fashion models or dancers that the artist deliberately placed in urban settings but it is difficult to see what has been staged and what not.
The four massive images on the right hand side of Room Two are very commanding and set the tone well for the show – blurry, grainy, heavy use of contrast, eccentric. The narrative is inexplicable, intriguing (the man with two hats!) and each could be the still from a movie that I would really like to watch. His lack of concern with technical standards is liberating and works well, even on the larger prints. Klein really seems to capture the culture of the age and yet his work has a timeless quality, as he presents so many fascinating human stories.
This kind of up-close street photography always makes me wonder how much you can tell of the personality of the photographer from the images. Is he charismatic, funny, charming? Über-persuasive or just a ballsy chancer? There are a few pictures of kids pointing toy guns at him, and many with extreme expressions, which again adds to the in-your-face dynamism of the work. He uses continuous shooting techniques and various abstractions/experiments such as photograms and exploring different mediums.
Klein talks about his photobook sequencing as being like editing a film. “I saw the book I wanted to do as a tabloid gone berserk, gross, grainy, over-inked, with a brutal layout, bull-horn headlines. This is what New York deserved and would get.”
I was very happy that the images did not have descriptive titles (mostly just place names) and it was interesting to see when they had been printed (although I don’t really have the technical know-how to make any deductions from this). Klein is clearly fascinated with signs and advertising, typography etc and the result is almost collage-like images. Here is a human figure or two, some glass reflections, a bit of a building and a billboard, a street sign, the hint of a car – these could all have been pasted together from different scenes. I found the raw energy to be very appealing and inspiring.
The colour work (Contacts) was less interesting to me, possibly as the style is over-used in our modern culture. I found it hard to imagine how exactly it would have been received at the time of creation as it seems so familiar to me.
I am definitely now a big fan of William Klein. His edginess and multi-media profile as a painter, film-maker and graphic artist alongside his photographic instincts result in some extraordinary images.
For my own work, this part of the study tour has encouraged me to ….
- Be more bold with the use of contrast
- Feel free to be a bit messier with my compositions (lopped off heads, hands and feet are not always the end of the world) – Clive has said this all along, of course!
- Be less worried about blur or blown-out highlights (in fact I should experiment more with how little detail can be included while still conveying a message)
- Think about grouping my images together more (last night I discarded some images from Cuba which were blurry or where the people had their back to me which may have worked well in a set with a B/W, grainy treatment)
Moriyama says: “My approach is very simple – there is no artistry, I just shoot freely. 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.”
I actually felt that much of his work did not feel as if it had been shot freely and I would have surmised that he was in fact obsessed with create two-dimensional art, at the expense of telling stories in the way that Klein does. I generally found Moriyama’s images to be much more flat, lifeless, uninteresting – all about a 2D aesthetic but individually unmemorable. I wonder if it is because I have never visited Japan and have no real affinity with the culture or maybe that he conveys too well a sense of isolation and anonymity, a “nightmarish dislocation” as Clive suggested? Maybe some of his abstractions/disassociations are just one step too far for my taste. I was largely left cold.
It all lead to some interesting discussions with fellow students and tutors though. We were intrigued (and a little surprised) by the image of a foetus – I wondered how far Moriyama had directed its positioning to create the right aesthetic? Clive talked about the archeology of understanding, the layers of time and experience and how much of this has been flattened by the Internet and our modern approaches to learning. Gareth brought up the point that photography is not a universal language. I also considered (silently) whether blurry images are a bit more acceptable when shooting with film rather than digital?
I do not believe that Moriyama has really captured the eroticism of Tokyo as he claims. I fact, I found his imagery to be depressingly devoid in that respect – even the pictures of curvaceous body parts. His approach is sensuous but I found the results lacking. Perhaps with the exception of the close up of the legs and crotch in fishnet stockings as part of the series How to Create a Beautiful Picture (1987)… I have to confess that I enjoyed watching people getting very close to the image to work out what it was and then jumping back as they realised where they were putting their face.
Room Five saved the day for me – this featured a slideshow of stills taken on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1978 when Moriyama was going through some serious personal problems. He promised himself that he would go out and take pictures everyday and the result is a powerful portrait of the ordinary, the beautiful, the sad, the cold, the loneliness of that moment in his world. This is where I could really see just how freely he shoots. No artistry is necessary as it all comes from his simple, wonderful vision. The Polaroid/Polaroid mosaic (1997) is superb too – gorgeous textures and tricks of scale and perspective which create a new symbiotic interior landscape.
Another highlight of the show was learning that Moriyama has a signature photograph - a stray dog, photographed in 1971. According to the guide, “It is an image of solitude, disengaged from society and living on the streets, abject, wild and even threatening. But it may be the intensity of the dog’s gaze, warily assessing its surroundings, that allies it so closely with the photographer.” It seems that Moriyama has reworked this image obsessively over the decades and has presented in other mediums such as silk screen prints. “It has also come to embody his own restless creativity.”
So what have I learned…. ?
- I want to have a signature image!
- This part of the exhibition encouraged me, like the Klein work, to think about how I can group my images together – how they speak to each other and work as a set
- The scale and positioning/juxtaposing and repro of prints can make a massive difference to how people respond to them
- Shoot ‘freely’, shoot a lot – get out into ordinary places and find extraordinary things to photograph without worrying all the time about the technical execution
All in all, I found the work of these two incredible men to be very inspiring – a great exhibition experience and, as always, a pleasure to get chance to speak with my student friends and tutors.