William Klein + Daido Moriyama, Tate Modern

-This exhibition is now closed-

The William Klein + Daido Moriyama exhibition at the Tate Modern consists of separate but adjacent retrospectives of the two prolific photographers.

American William Klein and Japanese Daido Moriyama both began working in photography in the 1950s, rising to fame for their provocative urban photography, showcasing the diversity – the good, the bad and the ugly – of the modern city. Klein’s acclaimed 1956 photobook, Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, is a translation of the photographer’s love/hate relationship with his hometown into what he has called ‘a tabloid gone berserk, gross, grainy, over-inked’, complete with photos of gaudy neon signs and images of children playing with revolvers. American publishers at the time were so alarmed to see ‘a New York that looked like a slum’ that they refused to print, condemning the work as ‘anti-American’. Eventually published in France, Klein’s book found great international popularity, particularly in Japan. The book was a great influence on Moriyama, who went on to develop a similar style for publication in avant-garde magazine Provoke, challenging conventional attitudes to photography and mirroring the political unrest of the late 1960s.

Klein and Moriyama explore ideas of memory and perception and the debunked concept of the unified city in a way that is unique to the medium of photography. Both photographers insist on the randomness of their subjects and the coincidence of their ability to capture a moment in time, but the choices of the artists are also on display in this exhibition. The blow-ups of Klein’s contact sheets, expressively and colourfully painted to show his editing process, give us an idea of some of the joyful emotion experienced by the artist at work, which he has called ‘the celebration of taking the photo’. There is a clear sense of Klein’s hand in much of his work, a sort of stylised approach especially in his fashion photography, which is missing from the bulk of Moriyama’s photography. Moriyama’s work seems more personal, the result of his endless obsession with documenting the street life of the Shinjuku district in Tokyo. He has described cities as inherently erotic, ‘enormous bodies of people’s desires’, and his work as his personal way of connecting to the world. There is a feeling of endless curiosity but also isolation and aggression in Moriyama’s largely monochromatic work, which is epitomised perfectly in his series of Stray Dog photos and prints.

It is no small success in 2012, when most everyone has a camera phone and hundreds of snapshots on social media, that this exhibition allows us to appreciate how revolutionary Klein and Moriyama’s techniques were against a postwar backdrop of expensively-produced, staged photography. It is fascinating to explore Klein’s joyful sense of artistic freedom and Moriyama’s deeply personal connection with the world through photography.

The exhibition runs until 20 January.

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