Perhaps more than any other artistic medium, photography suggests a direct link to reality. Defining this relationship afresh, exploring and formally expanding the boundaries of the medium, constitutes a permanent challenge. This Tate Modern show was the first to bring together two prolific artists who have consistently met this challenge: William Klein and Daido Moriyama have considerably enriched the language of photography, finding new ways of taking, processing and presenting photographs.
This exhibition could be visited as two retrospectives, but the similarities between the artists meant they were closely interrelated. The staggering range of Klein’s oeuvre was showcased, with early paintings from the 1950s and later over-paintings of contact sheets, the abstract colour photograms for the covers of Domus magazine (early 1950s), his fashion and documentary photography, film works such as the city portrait Broadway by Light (1958), and excerpts from the consumer-culture satire Mister Freedom (1969) and the fashion industry spoof Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, 1966).
Parallel to his activity as a fashion photographer for Vogue, Klein was working on his first photographic monograph, Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956). His street photography showed the city’s people in often aggressive scenes, shot in extreme close-up with wide-angle distortion, deliberate blurring and unusual compositions. The book’s visual idiom and choice of motifs was so provocative that it was banned from publication in the US, only finding a publisher in Paris with the help of Klein’s friend and sometime collaborator Chris Marker. In spite of this, the scale of its impact was soon similar to that of Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958). It was followed by the books Rome (1958/9), Moscow (1964) and Tokyo (1964), all of which were also included in the show.
The urban worlds of Tokyo and New York provided a thematic focus for each show. In 1971, Moriyama had been living in Tokyo for ten years when he spent a short time in New York, taking the pictures for his book Another Country in New York (1971) which, together with Klein’s book, acted as a bridge between the exhibition’s halves. Besides fellow Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu, Moriyama names Klein among his role models, along with Jack Kerouac and Andy Warhol. The US military’s occupation of postwar Japan prompted Moriyama’s fascination with all things American, as he noted in conversation with the exhibition’s curator Simon Baker on the evening of the opening.
Moriyama published his pictures in Provoke, a magazine that – despite lasting for only five issues between 1969 and 1970 – is one of the most influential photo magazines of its time. Printed in black and white on matte paper, each issue was themed (for instance, ‘Consumerism’ and ‘Eros’), and other notable contributors included Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi and Taki Koji. Taken together, Moriyama’s artist’s books, exhibitions and texts make him one of the most important figures in Japanese photography.
Artists’ books occupy a central place in the oeuvres of both Klein and Moriyama. Before photography gained acceptance as an artistic medium, such publications were often the only way to make experimental works public. Many of the enlarged prints on display were accompanied by their book versions in vitrines, including Moriyama’s first publication, Japan: A Photo Theatre (1968), and Farewell Photography (1972). In both, the boundary-testing visual idiom that was to become Moriyama’s signature style is evident: film-like, atmospheric sequences of images, serial and not fixated on individual pictures. Shot in 35mm, without a tripod or an official photography permit, these photographs capture life on the street. True to his motto of ‘grainy, blurry, out-of-focus’, the pictures are hazy black and white with strong contrast, sometimes leaving only abstract forms. Moriyama is aware that this visual idiom already existed at the dawn of the medium, and – besides Eugène Atget – he counts Nicéphore Niépce among his historical referents. Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826) is the oldest surviving photograph: it shows the view from his study in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, an indexical trace fixed on a metal plate with an exposure time of eight hours.
Both Klein and Moriyama have called the conventions of supposedly ‘good’ photography into question and developed new visual idioms of their own through which to address the everyday and the political. With this joint exhibition, a crucial and largely overlooked moment in the history of photography gained visibility and recognition in an art context that has long been dominated by technically accomplished, static colour photography often orientated towards single images. The result is a decisive expansion of the museum canon.
translated by Nicholas Grindell