Caught in the exhilaration of the moment

Daido Moriyama took pictures out of a moving car, and photographed with incredible reflexes whatever he met in the city. A less radical photographer would have discarded most of the results: Moriyama learnt to trust his reactions and to savour the pictures they gave him. An exciting new double exhibition at Tate Modern looks at the relations between Moriyama and his inspiration, the American William Klein, and the relations of each to the city.

In 1956, Klein’s Life is Good and Good for You in New York was published
in Paris, where radical film-maker Chris Marker championed it at Editions du Seuil. Marker was to remain a close colleague and ally of Klein’s, and indeed it is possible to think of Klein as a member of the loose confraternity of film-makers and other artists that made up the Nouvelle Vague. New York was a brash, shouty book, filled with street photographs made with Klein’s signature wide-angled lens. The layouts and the style have both been enormously influential: Klein got so close he made himself a participant in what he photographed: the camera ceased to be a cold archivist and became a hot notebook.

Moriyama, too, was a member of confraternities of artists, notably those who gathered around the short-lived magazine Provoke. This exhibition argues that Moriyama took the radical licence he found in Klein and pushed it ever further. To give a hint of how far he was prepared to push, Moriyama published in 1972 a book called Farewell, Photography. Its roster of photographic effects includes extreme blur, radical framing, graininess, discontinuous subject matter . . . Yet it is not an ugly book, far from it. Klein and Moriyama each discovered that photography’s aesthetic was robust enough to survive any amount of stress.

The Tate show keeps the two artists separate, but in a clever piece of exhibition design, viewers can see the works of each over a dividing partition while viewing the other. This makes it three shows: a good, copious retrospective of each of two important and seductive artists, and a third show which is a comparative study of the means of reproduction and display of photographs. It is full of films, slide shows, magazines and books. It has early versions of pictures and later, reworked ones.

A room of giant reproductions of Klein’s painted contact sheets is one of the few unsuccessful passages in the show. These are late works, now much appreciated in the market. At sensible scales, they work very well, giving a painterly alto line to the more sombre baritone of the photograph. But at the giant scale, they fall into vulgarity.

Elsewhere, giant scale is a revelation. Klein’s early film, Broadway by Light (1958), a tribute to neon, is shown at a huge size and throughout the rooms there are series of photographs taking up entire walls as grids. Some are smaller, but more numerous. Seventy-five prints from Moriyama’s Japan: A Photo Theater (1968) are laid out as a maquette for the book, piled high and wide.

It is in these large displays of massed works that the similarities and differences between the two great photographers are plainest. They had a miraculous sure-footedness in common – what looked so radical became part of the vocabulary for the next generation. There are big differences, too. Klein remains a formalist. He is interested in typography, previous artists; he trained as a painter with Léger. He is also a story-teller. For Klein, pictures provide raw material for later thought.

Moriyama never does this. He treats each moment with absolute equality. He neither makes any judgment himself, nor expects you as his viewer to make any. The photograph is a moment experienced, nothing more and nothing less. Moriyama is capable of something approaching documentary, as in the studies of commuters in the Platform series (1977), and he is capable of the lyrical, as in the miraculous Tales of Tono (1976). But I don’t think he ever asks us to understand anything.

This is a tremendous exhibition. It’s exhilarating to walk around the space, and that excitement remains long after you leave.

‘William Klein + Daido Moriyama’, Tate Modern, until January 20,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.