Wednesday, March 20, 2013

William Klein's New York

In 1954 William Klein returned to New York from his adopted country France and began to photograph it in a “new way”.  He was an American returning home for eight months after spending six years in Europe and as such was like a foreigner arriving to a new land.  This alienation from the streets and the people he grew up with allowed him to reassess them as an outsider while his familiarity allowed him to relate to them as a local.

'I was a make believe ethnographer: treating new yorkers like an explorer would treat zulus - searching for the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography.'

William Klein, Pepsi and Moves, Harlem, New York, 1955

Klein was returning as an artist using photography as his medium and not just a photographer looking to art for inspiration.  The work was coarse, raw and full of energy.  It resonated with the spontaneity and immediacy that American art was showing at the time. Its primitive and gestural characteristics echoing the “action paintings” of Jackson Pollock.

Klein's presence was evident in all his images.  His physical presence felt through his engagement with his subjects, his vivid technique and style or simply through the angle he would hold the camera.  It was action photography. His images lunged and arrested sometimes feeling like stills ripped from a movie reel and re-presented in their raw state.

William Klein, Vertical Diamonds 1953 (Abstract Art)

Jackson Pollock at work, 1950

Klein rejected conformity.  His shots were often blurred or out of focus. He used fast film and wide angles.  He was transferring abstract art techniques to the real life streets of New York.  He applied a visual filter of movement, blur and haziness to the exuberance of life on the street and in doing so amplified its inherent intensity.

Candy Store, William Klein, New York, 1955
Without any formal photographic training Klein had now created his own style. His technique and approach shocked the photography world.  He had captured life on the streets like no other photographer before.  The subjects were always engaged and engaging. Klein wasn’t capturing life as it went by but was capturing life as it unfolded and wrapping it up in its own aura of visual energy.  Klein then added an extra layer of vitality to every frame through his experimental techniques with flash, blur, close-ups, wide-angle, grab shots, abstraction, noise, and grainy textural qualities.

St. Patricks' Day, 5th Avenue, William Klein, 1955

The city Klein portrays was one of multicultural and social dynamism.  There was little of today's skepticism in the faces of its subjects. The people and the streets of New York were willing and active participants in Klein's portrayal. He showed the underlying exuberance of the city and its sense of fun.  Where there was evidence of darkness there was never threat or menace.  Even his most disturbing and iconic photo from the series turns out to be theatre.

"'s fake violence, a parody. I asked the boy to point the gun at me and then look tough. He did, and then we both laughed…"

Gun #1, William Klein, New York, 1955

Along with Robert Frank's book The Americans (1958), Klein's New York (1955) would eventually become recognised as one of the the most ground breaking works on street photography in America. Both men took a real, honest and sometimes harsh look at life while also rebelling against the traditions of aesthetic formality prevalent in photography to that date. Frank's images were more distant and less violent than Klein's. They both showed America as it had never been shown before but it was Klein that pushed more aggressively the filter through which we saw this "new" America.

Elevator, Miami Beach, Robert Frank, 1955

In Klein’s New York life stopped for no-one.  There was no time to focus, no time to stop and look…just time to glimpse or catch the world as it went by. It was instinctive and in your face.

lsa Maxwell’s Toy Ball, William Klein, New York, 1955


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