As the Shangri-Las sang . . . the past, let me tell you about the past. Or, rather, of course, not the past but pasts. The present, too. The future, even. Dialogues across the years (and decades). The only real time travel there is, sadly. And so to the William Klein/Moriyama double-header at the Tate: a dialogue across time and space. An American in Paris, shotgun-hitched with a man from Tokyo, ten years his junior and quite different in so many ways — temperament, vision, style. It’s a strange marriage. I’ve heard that Klein wasn’t too pleased to be sharing his Tate time with Moriyama. Not that he had anything against the Japanese photographer. It was just that, well, he thought it should be a solo show — ein Klein ding, so to say.
As I write this, the show is yet to open. That, of course, is no kind of reason not to write about it now, without having seen it. Some of my favourite books are ones I’ve never even held in my hands, let alone read. On that point, I’m with the French writer Paul Valéry who said that not-reading a book almost certainly made him a better judge of its worth than someone who had actually read it. Just as all worthwhile writing is a kind of disguised autobiography, so all creative reading (and non-reading) is, too. The same goes for image-making. No viewer, no photograph. No cinema-goer, no movie.
The Tate’s pitch for their Klein-Moriyama yoking is via ‘a shared focus on the principal cities in which they both worked: New York and Tokyo’. Which got me to thinking about cities and our visual representations of them. Or, rather, of course, our visual dreams of them. As New York poet Delmore Schwartz almost wrote, in dreams begin possibilities. In particular, I thought about the big four burgs, all of which are represented in the Tate show. New York: city of dreams, if we are to believe the Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five hit 1983, in which not everything is what it seems. Paris: city of light, a romantic title acquired quite unromantically, for its early adoption of electric street lighting. London: a hole in the world like a great black pit whose morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit, if we are to accept Sweeney Todd/Stephen Sondheim’s take on it. And Tokyo: by far the most provincial of the big four, a city which remains slyly veiled to outsiders, certainly, and probably even to its own citizens. In the previous issue of this magazine, Jerry Berndt said something really smart. Well, I liked it, anyway. He said: ‘Photography really is a state of mind. If you look at the world as if it’s not already a postcard then you will always find something to photograph.’
Yet, while it is smart, it is also not just partial but also a stupid lie. Meaning resides in the beholder as much as in the image or the mind of its creator. As much as they can close minds, postcards can also dream possibilities into being. My London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, they are all as much dreams dreamed by others — by photographers and film-makers — as they are places in which I’ve actually walked and talked. Brassai’s city of night is part of my Paris, even though it had, in ‘reality’, long gone before I even saw the place. So, too, is the light-saturated exuberance of Godard’s A Bout De Souffle. Brassai and Godard’s Paris: these are not mere images or prisms through which I view the city.
These are facts. As much as, say, Bert Hardy’s pictures of mid-20th century London. I grew up in that city of grime and kids playing in the street. In fact, I am one of the kids playing in one of Hardy’s pictures. Well, when I write ‘am’, I do, of course, the word in its imaginative sense. My Tokyo is the one Godzilla destroyed and it’s the one combed over in Watabe Yukichi’s A Criminal Investigation. I’m sure I’ve crossed the railway bridge that the two cops are walking across on the way to the woodyard. My New York is Chicago-born Bruce Davidson’s subway and the German photographer Thomas Struth’s emptied-out, rubbish-strewn lower Manhattan. It’s also Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (filmed on location in Los Angeles) and New York, New York (filmed in Hollywood, on M-G-M’s soundstage 29). And it’s Londoner Norman Parkinson’s 1955 homage to the movie-world version of the city. Also titled New York, New York, it’s a black-and-white photograph of a couple running across the Brooklyn bridge, with the Empire State building in the background. (Surely, it’s the only exciting and sexy picture ever taken featuring a man with a briefcase. Certainly of a man who is, as the model was, an Old Etonian former Guards officer.)
Postcards all, in their own way. For the Tate show, the curators decided it would be a neat idea to have images of cities by the two photographers. Klein is too old etc to have made any new pictures, so they used some of his old etc famous ones. Moriyama, though, did pick up his camera and shoot London. Klein’s still sing, loudly. Picture talks to picture. A model, in 1960 and stripes, on a Roman road-crossing. An English football hooligan, thirty years later, in Turin and a striped shirt, teamed with a Union Jack cap. Deepest and deepest-felt of all, Klein’s Mickey Has Come To Save Times Square, the 1998 collage which offered a new kind of reportage. Really. Having been its own great black pit for a generation or two, Times Square had just seen the arrival of a Disney Store into the very place where Diane Arbus had once caroused and photographed our subconscious. Photography, she said, was something she thought of ‘as a naughty thing to do’. Times Square was also the spot at the heart of the city about which Moriyama made his own first book, 1974’s Another Country In New York — over, under, sideways down images, filtered through the colanders of Andy Warhol and a Canon U-Bix copier. I can’t make up my mind about Moriyama’s new pictures of London, though. They are — or, at least, seem to be — dead.
They are images that any tourist could make. A juxtaposition of Battersea power and a giant billboard. Bansky graffiti that’s been graffitoed. Are they just an unknowing foreigner’s unknowing pictures of a seemingly known but tragically unknown metropolis? Or is Moriyama actually playing with that idea? Is he creating commentaries on our cities by, self-consciously and knowingly, creating images that inhabit the world of over-confident knowing? When I figure that out, I’ll let you know. On a postcard.
© Peter Silverton 2012