Daido Moriyama, Shinjuku Station from Japan- A Photo Theatre, 1968
Daido Moriyama’s subdued characters and the bold, unyielding nature of William Klein’s photography form the basis of Tate Modern’s latest photography exhibition.
Following Walter Benjamin’s writings on city life in Paris during the 19th century, the figure of the flâneur – the leisured gentleman turned urban explorer – became an object of scholarly interest as well as a source of inspiration for writers and artists. In his final book The Arcades Project Benjamin draws on Charles Baudelaire’s essay The Painter of Modern Life, in which the French poet defines the flâneur as a passionate spectator immersed in the crowd.
This emblematic figure of the urban, modern experience, sees the world, finds himself at its center and yet manages to remain entirely hidden from it. In the 20th century the handheld camera would become an important tool for the street photographer, a modern extension of Benjamin’s urban observer.
William Klein, Gun 2, New York, 1955
The work by American photographer and filmmaker William Klein and Daido Moriyama, Klein’s Japanese contemporary, embodies the art of flânerie, a form of urban spectatorship and exploration the French writer and journalist Victor Fournel would refer to as a moving photograph of urban experience.
Both Klein and Moriyama are avid observers of the city, sharing a desire to place themselves at the heart of multitude. Moriyama’s images, in particular photographs from his first book Japan: A Photo Theatre, are testimony to the artist’s fascination with Tokyo’s nightlife, its street and theatre performers, its bars and nightclubs. Klein’s photographs from his book New York, 1945 – 1955 illustrate a crowded, at times hostile New York City, a metropolis that appears to be teeming with aggressive energy.
Daido Moriyama, Provoke No 2, 1969
Despite the artists’ seemingly similar approach to urban exploration, their resulting photographs exhibit subtle differences. Klein, who prefers to get jammed in amongst the crowd, makes his subjects aware of his presence; allowing them to pose, to act. The bold, unyielding nature of his photographs and films differs from the rather subdued character of Moriyama’s images, which seem to transcend ordinary street photography.
William Klein, Pray, Sin, New York, 1954
Among his many portraits of street performers and commuters one finds close-ups of foetuses in formaldehyde, anthropomorphic portraits of animals and photographs from his book Farewell Photography, which is an essay on the limits of photography. Moriyama’s out-of-focus, grainy images create a rupture within the otherwise lively and loud series of photographs – a contemplative silence.
Benjamin often differentiated between the flâneur and the badaud, or bystander. Whereas the former is always in full possession of his individuality, the badaud is no longer an individual. According to Fournel he is an impersonal creature, intoxicated by the outside world, who, in the face of the spectacle is no longer a human being but part of the crowd.
German sociologist Georg Simmel believed one of the greatest challenges of modern life was to preserve our individuality in the face of overwhelming social forces.
Klein, whose aesthetic was, admittedly, the ‘New York Daily News… the garish urgency of their front-page scoops’, has, like the badaud, lost his individuality amongst a crowd of many other great photographers of his genre. Moriyama’s photographs are not directed towards the spectacle; when we view his photographs we see his individuality, his artistic vision and his consciousness alone.