Written by John Kennerdell
You might have seen him had you been walking the streets of New York City exactly 60 years ago this winter. Although trained as a painter, he was carrying a camera. And while he lived in Paris, he moved through the city of New York and photographed its people with the ease of a native son. His name was William Klein and he was 26 years old.
When Klein tried to find a publisher for his New York photos before returning to Europe the next year, 1955, the reaction could hardly have been less encouraging. He made the city look like a slum. His framing was random and incoherent. Technique? Fugeddaboutit. As Popular Photography described it on first sight of his work, "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." Whatever his game might be, mid-century America clearly wasn’t ready.
Back in France, Klein managed to put out a small volume of 120 of the photos, titled, with Beat irony, Life is Good & Good for You in New York. "I wanted to do [it] as a tabloid gone berserk," he later said, "gross, grainy, over-inked, with a brutal layout, bullhorn headlines." While the European establishment didn’t quite know what to make of it, young, avant-garde photographers loved its raw, anything-goes energy. It was largely through those young photographers, whose names included Ed van der Elsken and Mario Carrieri, that the style if not necessarily the substance of Klein's photography began to ripple out to the world at large.
Nowhere did this new sense of photographic freedom find richer ground than in Japan, a nation still grappling with the ravages of war and the search for a new identity. Restless young Japanese photographers immediately saw in Klein a visual language that they could apply to their own ends. Collectively, five of them became known as the Provoke group, after a short-lived magazine of the time, and described their aesthetic as "Are, bure, bokeh" ("Rough, blurred, and out of focus"). But individually they very much went their own ways. Shomei Tomatsu, the photojournalist of the group, took what he called a "subjective documentary" approach to social and cultural issues. By contrast, Takuma Nakahira's dark urban abstractions felt like equal parts sumi-e and radioactive nightmare. And then, somewhere between those two, Daido Moriyama, the most directly influenced by Klein and soon to become the best known of the group in the West. To this day he roams the back alleys of Shinjuku with a little digicam and wide-angle lens, a street photographer to the last.
From Chewing Gum and Chocolate by Shomei Tomatsu, 1959. The postwar Japan photographer par excellence, Tomatsu admitted to being "obsessed" with the U.S. Occupation and the cultural impact of the West on Japan.
And Klein? He still lives in Paris and seems to savor the role of eternal rebel. Fully 40 years passed before his Life is Good photos were put out in book form in the U.S. The expanded collection, titled William Klein, New York, 1954–1955, more powerfully than ever shows us a young man working at white-hot intensity, following his instincts as an artist rather than a trained photographer. Had his original book been published in the U.S. rather than Europe it's hard to imagine it would have had any less impact than Robert Frank's The Americans, which appeared two years later.
But in the end the point is moot, so ubiquitous has Klein's influence become. Whether in fashion, advertising, or documentary photography—never mind motion pictures—nothing has ever been quite the same since William Klein and that winter on the streets of New York six decades ago.
John Kennerdell writes two articles a year for TOP.
Original contents copyright 2015 by John Kennerdell. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Chris Y.: "John Kennerdell should write a lot more for TOP. This was gold as far as I'm concerned. Thank you."
Mike replies: Yeah, but I don't look a gift horse. If ya follow.
Julian Love: "Tate Modern held a large Klein/Moriyama retrospective a couple of years ago. While the photographs themselves were wonderful to look at, full of visual interest, it was the large collection of first edition books that really stood out (most of them loaned by Martin Parr, who seems to own several copies of each). The dramatic layouts combined grainy full-bleed images covered in bold text and graphic shapes. The results were both chaotic and mesmerising."