William Klein’s Tokyo Pop

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Butoh Dancers (Kazuo Ohno), Tokyo, Japan, 1961

Klein was invited to Tokyo, where he shot for three months and made more than 1,000 pictures.


William Klein’s Tokyo Pop

By Marlaine Glicksman, ASX

In Tokyo, in 1961, Mothra burst forth from nuclear darkness and cinema screens; new wave filmmaker Shohei Imamura unleashed manic energy and unruly swine in Pigs and Battleships; Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers wowed audiences with their seminal concert and hard bop; an “exploding” population weighed on people’s minds; a city shrugging off American occupation prepared to appear to a waiting world—televised!—at its 1964 Olympics; and photographer William Klein took to the streets to capture the pulse of an insular city poised to become an international metropolis.

Like Mothra, the world was busting loose; the Summer of Love was in the making, and so was the Vietnam War. Japan was at a crossroads. So was photography. Klein (along with fellow visionary Robert Frank) was at its center, using the camera in a profound and radical way, giving us not only an unprecedented view of Tokyo but also of the medium. Klein’s Tokyo 1961, recently on view at the Polka Galerie in Paris, in a selection of oversize gelatin silver prints on Baryte paper, has the syncopation and slurred bodies of a jazz score; the cynicism, grit, and Bill Brandt blacks of a film noir—and the Whaam! of a Wesselman.

Klein’s Tokyo images broke with Western preconceptions of a diminutive Japan—and even with the pretty, descriptive, and “Zen-like” (Klein’s word) pictures of late-fifties Japanese photographers. His Tokyo is dense, raw, and restive. Its space is compressed and fragmented, filled with signage and Légerian interlocking verticals and horizontals, repeating reflections and afterglow—effects only emphasized by its Japanese ideograms and uninitiated eyes’ efforts to make sense of the images. They are cubist in their compositions, entirely Pop in their sensibility—naughty, ironic, layered comments on mass culture, consumerism, and the contradictory impulses of being Japanese.

Klein was invited to Tokyo, where he shot for three months and made more than 1,000 pictures, after the publication of his groundbreaking New York, Rome, and Moscow photo books, by sponsors that included Fujifilm. (Ever the contrarian, the photographer chose to shoot with his beloved Kodak instead.) He was fascinated by Tokyo, but knew little of it; in 1961, to much of the world Japan was still a mysterious and/or comic foil for cultural misunderstanding. (In a 1959 episode of I Love Lucy, the Ricardos, America’s favorite family, journey to “Japan,” where Lucy manages to plunge her head through a paper shoji screen.) Klein’s work departed not only from mainstream photography but also any pretense at cultural understanding. “I cast myself into the unknown,” Klein said. “For me, Tokyo was another planet.” And he shot it that way.


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Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Tokyo, Japan, 1961

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Tokyo, Japan, 1961


In Klein’s Tokyo, the collective— baseball, the bourse, the beauty school… all perpetually in motion— consumes the individual, who is often but a blur against a graphic backdrop.


This self-declared outsider stance and Klein’s own inherent sense of alienation (significantly shaped by his growing up Jewish in a tough Irish neighborhood in New York City), underscores his Tokyo prints’ Pop leanings and film noir threads. Klein knowingly and unknowingly used his newcomer status to overstep unspoken cultural expectations: In a culture that is far more interior, he steers his subjects outdoors. He removes dancers from their studio. He makes a medium shot of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako, a photo considered scandalous for its transgression of good form and circumscribed social space—one never dared approach royalty, let alone this close. Even more cheeky, Klein allows reflections to semi-obscure their royal faces, which appear within the rectangular frames within a frame that run across the upper half of the photo, the words “Japan Industry Floating” running below.

Pop’s words and typography figure heavily throughout Tokyo 1961; they are both image and thought, as well as a commentary and counterpoint to the pictures’ human activity. Metro anchors on the number 2, while a sea of blurring bodies split Moses-like before it. In his Affiche du Cinéma, Klein captures an in situ collage of cinema posters that form an impromptu face. Its stratified eyes dart in different directions, while its mouth spews Japanese ideograms from a perfectly placed tear, as though a Pop art dialogue bubble. (More Klein cockiness: The Japanese often politely cover their mouth, to laugh let alone to spit, which itself constitutes a form of porn in Japan.)

Klein also breaches the boundaries of traditional documentary photography: His subjects are complicit in the photo-making. He eggs them on: They contort. They cross dress. (Some barely dress at all.) They confront the camera and dare us to look—brazenly breaking the Fourth Wall.

Modern Dance Ceremony’s Butoh dancers, two half-undressed, another in drag, writhe in the street, their startling modernity and immodesty in contrast with the traditional architecture surrounding them, and with anything the West may have envisioned Japanese. The dancer on the left faces us, gesturing, his head wrapped in black (entirely obscured faces appear in Klein’s fashion work, as well); at the image’s center another dancer crouches before a puddle that perfectly reflects the trees above; while a third, frame right, dressed in drag, his gown asunder on his shoulders, his hair graced by a daisy, leans dejectedly like a Tennessee Williams character. Each offsets the other, the dense blacks and shadows contrasting with their exposed pale skin, while the camera’s deep focus draws us back, down the street, to the perfectly placed onlookers beyond. The dancers’ in-your-face provocation of the viewer recalls the iconic photo Gun 1, in Klein’s first book, Life is Good and Good for You, New York, of a sneering boy, his gun aimed straight at us—a stance perfectly Pop. (Provocation and guns figure prominently in Pop; artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s sixties work features both guns and performance-art “Shootings.”)

Fighter Painting Ceremony’s Shinohara, the mohawk-coiffed boxer/painter, also snarls at us fiercely (an expression echoed in Klein’s Portier de Pachinko Parlour), smearing a wall with a bold black Motherwellian abstract in a landscape jungle-like with plants that emphasize the primalness of the gestures and picture. Its depth of field and perspective again draw us back, past the wall buttressing the frame, left, and Shinohara center, to the character in the distant right, his torso thrust forward, forming the triumvirate on which the composition rests.

Confetti Air Ceremony’s phosphorescent, firefly-like rings float across the photo’s surface, almost as prominent as its people. Faces fore- and background blur, and only the musicians midground are in focus, a rivulet of black amid the fans in white. These floating halos appear again in the bubbles blown by the children in Ikebukuro Suburb. After March-Around-the Diet’s ideogram-like lights assume even more prominence over the people below them; humans in the luminous Neon Night are entirely absent.

Inside Bath Ceremony’s steamy white-tiled onsen, naked Japanese men smoke, wash, and contemplate. Window and mirrors, advertisements and film posters (that typography again) form the image’s Mondrian-like panes. This grid-like composition is mirrored, literally, in Klein’s black-and-white beauty school photo, Hair Ceremony, its surface a flurry of glances, gestures, reflections, and rectangles. (Klein has said this is his favorite Tokyo image—the first he made freed from the entourage of Japanese sponsors who routinely followed him.) His Facades is even more direct in its Mondrian references, with its building’s frame-within-a-frame rectangles, verticals, and horizontals. (The frames within a frame also recall the act of looking, of film-going, and of television watching.)

A photo of Shinjuku’s main boulevard, Neo-Dada Ceremony, is leaved with signs and layered with mostly male pedestrians in their ubiquitous white shirts and torquing bodies. A man with a mohawk (Shinohara, again?) and tight jeans, left, insouciantly smokes; another man sits on the curb; while behind him, another man, arms folded, tilts his head, seemingly to catch some rays; a woman far left swerves 180 degrees to speak with another—their gestures all coalescing into a frame dynamic with movement. Stock Market Ceremony is a hive of white-shirted blurring bodies encircling big desks, an image that similarly generates its own internal momentum.


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Tokyo, Japan, 1961

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Tokyo, Japan, 1961

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 Big Business Cocktail Ceremony, Tokyo, 1961

Klein, declared “this Moriyama guy” not only derivative but, he said, a “rip-off.”


In Klein’s Tokyo, the collective—baseball, the bourse, the beauty school…all perpetually in motion—consumes the individual, who is often but a blur against a graphic backdrop. Composition—kaleidoscopic pattern, typography, rhythm, repetition—takes precedence over content. Discontinuous space—reflecting an increasingly fractured and fragmented world—is the norm. The “ceremony” in Tokyo 1961’s titles completes Klein’s take on what he sees as life in everyday Tokyo: as series of shared, rote collective ceremonies, even down to standing on a streetcorner.

The seeds for Tokyo 1961 appear earlier, in the Pop art—and its antecedent Dadaist irreverence and found objects and film noir detachment—of Klein’s 1958 short Broadway by Light. The photographer’s first film, it followed his groundbreaking New York, running with the book’s constructivist signage and typography (an early maquette had a double spread “Inhale EXHALE” [so prescient in light of police-victim Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” which will echo across New York City in 2014 and forever after], interwoven with its own film noir sensibility, and embodying what would become the Klein style: the anomie, the broken space, the glowing lights and dark city-by-night shadows, the consumerism run amok (palpable both in Tokyo 1961 and Pop). The film was made with the aid of friends Alain Resnais (director of the dark and graphic Night and Fog) and Chris Marker (filmmaker of the French new wave La Jetée and publisher of Klein’s New York book, when all others had passed on the project because, they said, Klein made the city “look like shit”).

Broadway by Light reverberates noir in both its literal and metaphoric darkness, and in its cool jazz score. Like noir it begins with a cynical narrative: “Les Américains ont inventé le jazz pour se consoler de la mort…. Pour se consoler de la nuit, ils on inventé Broadway.” (“Americans invented jazz as a consolation for death; as consolation for the night, they invented Broadway.”) The film captures the blacks and blur we see later in Tokyo, the imposing signage and abstraction, the fragmentation, the pulsing illumination, and the information overload (foreshadowing today’s Internet). Its Broadway, like Klein’s Tokyo, is another planet, with a towering Mr. Peanut and puffing Camels, and a camera that catches Pop/film noir neon like “Murder is My Beat,” “Liberty,” “Needs,” “Kill or Be Killed.” A lone man on his ladder, replacing bulbs, moving type, is subsumed by the landscape and the blinking lights—the prototype noir protagonist. Broadway is dense with people, and yet in Klein’s frame, as in Tokyo and in Pop, the individual, the bulb changer, feels entirely isolated. The lights and rhythm of the Great White Way are synced and syncopated with the film’s soundtrack, their own inherent movement and flickering counterpointed by the zooming and panning of Klein’s camera, creating a visual jazz. Like Tokyo, Broadway appears an epitome of excess. Klein calls Broadway by Light his “hymn to commerce.” Considered by many the first Pop film, it culminates in a backlit “Pops Up” sign, illuminated by dawn itself.

But Klein’s Pop leanings and his utilization of typography and compressed and discontinuous space, both in Tokyo and Broadway, extend even farther back, to his own painting and the work of his painting teacher, Fernand Léger—and to Leger’s idiosyncratically cubist work, like Woman in Blue (1912), and to his iconic avant-garde film short Ballet Mécanique.


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Image result for william klein tokyo


Like Klein, Léger was considered a “mischief maker.” His own inherently personal style and refusal to work in one medium often broke with the confines of genre—just as Tokyo transcends documentary photography. Ballet Mécanique, with its fragmentation and German Expressionist angles and chiaroscuro, reflects the disquiet of a post-war world in much the way that Klein’s images reflect a post-war Japan. Léger frees the camera from its pedestal, and in a radical move, he literally takes it down to street level, under a car. Ballet—like Tokyo 1961—is filled with inner motion; repetitive images; graphic numbers and letters; and disembodied eyes, mouths, and legs, all brought together in Eisensteinian montage. Its careering camera foreshadows Klein’s own, swooping up from the sidewalk in Tokyo’s Three Generations and Ginza, and Neo-Dada’s low-angle street scene. The film’s typography and kaleidoscopic images will be taken up in Orson Welles’ film noir Lady from Shanghai and in Broadway by Light, and Tokyo 1961’s Worker.

Leger’s later work, like La Grand Julie (1945), with its flattened figures and primary colors, heavily influenced the American Pop movement that Klein’s Tokyo images draw upon. Inspiration for the reflections and repetitions in Tokyo 161 (Twelve Leading Characters, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Worker again) can also be seen in Marcel Duchamp’s cascading Woman Descending a Staircase; Klein has said he wanted to treat the glowing ads on Broadway, the Coca Cola and Silvana signs, as Duchamp did his Readymades.

That is, the roots—the impulse—for Klein’s Tokyo photos largely lay in art and painting: his own, Leger’s, Duchamp’s, Mondrian’s…. His negatives are not precious documents but canvases for the images that are born from them: Klein insists on making his own prints and plays with focus in the enlarger. He manipulates light and shadow as though they were an extension of his brush. “The whites bleed,” he said. “The blacks spill over.”


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Klein in fact questioned when starting out why he could not push the boundaries of painting with light as he could with painting with a brush: “I thought photography could be treated like painting. I thought photography was way behind the other arts. I thought what I learned in painting I could use in photography.”

Klein’s admittedly “brutal, funky” Tokyo images heavily influenced Japanese photographers and Japan’s Provoke group, most notably Daido Moriyama, whose work, also noted for its bokeh and chiaroscuro, was coupled with Klein’s in the seminal Tate Modern’s 2012–2013 show. (Klein, however, declared “this Moriyama guy” not only as derivative but, he said, a “rip-off.”) Klein’s imprint can also be seen in the dark, gritty, and Eros-infused images in the Polka Galerie’s Jakob Aue Sobol show, which side-by-side with Tokyo 1961. Photojournalist Don McCullin also claims Klein as a strong influence—one reflected in his own images’ carefully composed fore-, mid-, and backgrounds, and his stepping intimately into his subject’s space to deliver disquieting truths from Vietnam, Lebanon, Biafra, and beyond.

Klein eventually blew up some of his Tokyo contacts and painted over them with bold photo-editing marks, a finger to photo (and, even more, to documentary-photo) tradition—much the same way the photographer defied what’s done in Japan and, later, in fashion photography.

His Tokyo 1961 images at Polka, with their grids of black and swirls of shimmering whites, are irreverent and striking, highly composed yet seemingly random, abuzz with inherent rhythm and energy—the exact opposite of how the city was previously pictured. They refuse to interpret yet are somehow suffused with commentary. Extremely personal, they are as much about Klein as they are about Japan, somehow simulacra yet at the same time a truth, both poetry and franc-parler. They are art first, documentation second, fueled by a powerful and provocative Pop impulse to produce images that embody Tokyo both 1961 and today.





Marlaine Glicksman is an award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, photographer, and journalist based in New York City. She is currently in post-production on The Commandment Keepers, a feature documentary on the highly observant African-American synagogue in Harlem.


(All rights reserved. Text @ Marlaine Glicksman. Images @ William Klein and courtesy Polka Galerie.)

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