A Titan

New York native William Klein was a titan in the world of photography whose work stands as a testament to creative force and vision that defied photographic traditions and conventions. His unorthodox and vibrant approach to the medium continuously challenged photography and was influential for many street photographers for generations to come such as Daido Moriyama and Diane Arbus. Describing his own work as ‘a crash course in what was not to be done in photography‘, his works often captured the grotesque and the beautiful within a single frame.

An Unintentional Photographer

Born in 1926 in Manhattan, William Klein never set out to be a photographer. Upon finishing high school at the age of fourteen, he enrolled at the City College of New York to study sociology. He then dropped out of college a year before graduation and joined the army in 1945. After his demobilization in Paris, Klein stayed there to study art with Fernand Leger, where he met several other artists including Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman. His first use of the camera came when he decided to photograph his abstract painting studies that were done on revolving room dividers. He was intrigued by the effect of the revolving dividers in motion and found blurred geometric forms a revelation. Klein said,

“It seemed to me that blur gave another dimension to the lines, squares and circles we were all playing with and has a way out of the hard-edge rut. I was intrigued by what could be done with photography.”

These early works were primarily influenced by the likes of Man Ray, Dadaists, and the Bauhaus. His interest in motion, chaos and immediacy through the lens later reflected onto his photographs capturing the energy of city life in the upcoming years.

Causing a Stir within the Fashion Scene

By the mid-50s, William Klein’s experimental abstract photographs led to a job offer from Alexander Liberman of Vogue, and Klein returned to New York in 1954. His photography in the 50s was unusual for its time; he satirized the world of fashion with strikingly original photographs, often putting models into chaotic scenes on the streets of megacities. Klein caused a stir within the fashion scene, yet his candid street photography brought him international acclaim. While shooting fashion in New York, William Klein hurled himself into the urban chaos of the city and documented the streets with all its rawness over an intense 8-month period between 1954-1955. The images would later be published in a photobook titled Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, which had a groundbreaking effect in the world of photography. The photobook received the Prix Nadar in 1957 and defied all preconceived rules of photography known thus far. On his approach to the overall vision Klein said,

“I wanted to be visible in the biggest way possible. My aesthetics was the New York Daily News. I saw the book I wanted to do as a tabloid gone berserk, gross, grainy, over-inked, with a brutal layout, bull-horn headlines. This is what New York deserved and would get.”

Breaking Rules

William Klein’s grainy, blurry, high-contrast photographs of New York unsettled many as they presented qualities that were generally considered to be defects in the popular photographic community. Jim Lewis wrote in Slate magazine in 2003 that,

“Klein broke half the rules of photography and ignored the other half.”

The images were in direct opposition to the mode of elegance seen in the works of respected documentary photographers at the time such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. William Klein knew that he was an outsider within the conventional photography scene. He said,

“I come from the outside. The rules of photography didn’t interest me. There were things you could do with a camera that you couldn’t do with any other medium — grain, contrasts, blur, cock-eyed framing, eliminating or exaggerating grey tones and so on.”

Indeed, his creative use of the camera combined with the crowded, at times hostile scenes of New York created charged, aggressive, surreal images of city life.

William Klein, Pray + Sin, NY, 1955, Silver Gelatin Photograph
William Klein, Pray + Sin, NY, 1955, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Pray + Sin

One of the photographs in the photobook that best represent William Klein’s uncompromising rawness is the 1955 image titled Pray + Sin. The photograph presents a fast-paced street corner in the heart of New York, with a black man who appears to be a preacher holding the US flag and signage that has the words “Pray” and “Sin” in bold. The man is photographed in motion, possibly shouting at the passersby encouraging them to pray and not sin. The striking, in-your-face nature of the image comes from the way Klein prefers to be amongst the crowd, making the subject aware of his presence. The viewer, in return also feels present, almost as if an intimate participant within the scene, akin to another passerby walking passed the preacher.

“The World Capital of Anguish”

There is a certain cynicism about the ideology of American life in the way Klein portrays the streets of New York. The blurred, grainy photograph is far from the image of an idealized America. New York, according to him was “the world capital of anguish” and Katherine Knorr wrote in the International Herald Tribune in 1996 that “Klein’s New York is a city of night, even in daytime.”

Visual Poetry

The wide-angle lens he uses further broadens the image scene, highlighting the chaotic, unrefined aura of the photograph. By fitting as many elements as possible within the same frame using a wide lens, he ultimately rejected the hierarchy within traditional photograph’s composition. His graphic images merged satire, social criticism, black humor and incredible visual poetry.

The Top Thirty Most Important Photographers

In 1963, the International Jury at Photokina voted William Klein one of the top thirty most important photographers in the medium’s history. Klein’s gritty and instinctive photography changed the course of photography history and throughout his sixty five-year career he excelled in creating a wide range of remarkable photographs. Having received numerous awards, Klein was honored with a Commander of Arts and Letter in France in 1989, the Medal of the Century by the Royal Photographic Society in London in 1999, the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, and the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards. Works by William Klein are included the collections of many institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.