William Klein and The Zero Degree of Street Photography

© William Klein
Dance in Brooklyn 1955 © William Klein

I came across the work of William Klein when browsing though photography books in a book shop.  It didn’t take many turns of the pages for me to decide to buy the book and learn more about the man and his photography.  I found his raw, ironic, high contrast and grainy street photography vibrant, often strange and compelling.

William Klein came to the notice of the world in the 1960s after he was talent spotted by the art director of Vogue who saw an exhibition of his early abstract work and offered him a job on the spot.  Klein had studied painting in Paris but was untrained as a photographer and considered himself an an outsider – lacking any respect for the photographic technique he didn’t possess.  In later years he ascribed this to a contrarian instinct: “Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”

Fashion photography is traditionally highly polished, and his untutored, highly dynamic and ironic approach was revolutionary.  Vogue subsequently financed a street photography project in New York where Klein, encountering culture shock after his time in Paris – which he feared would soon wear off – went “in search of the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography”.  To get there he employed “A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cockeyed framing, accidents, whatever happens…” and adopted the role of  “a make-believe ethnographer”.

The resulting book ‘Life is Good and Good For You in New York’ (1955)  became a prize winning route to celebrity, though no American publisher was willing to publish it (and didn’t for 40 years), considering it unflattering to the point of being anti-American.  Instead it was first published in Paris, Klein’s adopted home.  He followed up with books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo all in the same inimitable, rebellious style.   Despite his success he became restless and turned to film making.  His first film was Broadway by Jazz, described here in an article in the Financial Times in 2012:

Broadway by Light is often described as the “first pop film”, and to watch it now is still an exhilarating 11-minute roller-coaster ride through the neon of Broadway and Times Square. Klein invented his own kind of visual jazz – violent, vulgar, seductive and beautiful, with a soundtrack to match. The camera moves ceaselessly in and out of the alphabet of signs as the bulbs bloom and fade into abstract blobs of pure colour: Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Rock Hudson, The New York Times. Fascination. Continuous till 4am. Orson Welles said it was the first film in which “colour was necessary”.

Klein only returned to photography in the 1980s, where his pioneering role was recognised.  Since then he has won many more awards and become known for his graphic design work, which applies bold slashes of paint to the enlarged contact sheets he had marked up in pencil years before.

In his street photography William Klein likes to get into the thick of things; filling the frame with the chaos of the city.  He mixes and moves with his subjects, embracing a wide lens for close up shots and motion blur in a way no one has before.  As he said: “sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened, I’d rush into crowds – bang! bang! I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance. Other times I’d frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.”  An article in the  Independent in 1998 sums up his approach:

In Klein’s New York people press themselves up against the lens, dancing around the photographer, pulling faces, pretending to shoot each other, or the photographer, with toy guns. It is the kind of photography that is impossible to do today: people are no longer delighted to be snapped in the street, do not dance or horse around in Harlem on Easter Sunday for a photographer. They were intrigued by this white guy with his beautiful French wife.

William Klein
“Moves + Pepsi”, Harlem © William Klein

His preference for the wide angle lens came from the “contradictions and confusion” that it revealed, and enabled him to include many subjects in his innovative composition.  Of the blur he said: “If you look carefully at life, you see blur. Shake your hand. Blur is part of life“.   His prints use extreme contrast and grain complete the visceral effect.  The combined effect is perfect for street photography, as this post in Streethunters from 2015 describes:

Perfection. We all strive for it when it comes to photography. Perfect exposure. Composition. Tack-sharp images. But, street photography isn’t about perfection. At it’s core, street photography is about capturing life. And life is far from perfect. William Klein, in his own way, mastered imperfection within street photography and became a trailblazer.

Klein’s maverick work has an immediate impact but is difficult to interpret. This is apparently by design.  In what has become my favourite William Klein quote he said: “My photographs are the fragments of a shapeless cry that tries to say who knows what… What would please me most is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.”  Or maybe not as, in an interview in 2013, when asked which is the most gratifying medium he chose film on the basis that “people don’t know how to read photographs. There isn’t this dialogue….What you put in a photograph is not always perceived by the other people who look at them as what you wanted to say. There isn’t a culture of photography. You learn about music appreciation at schools or go to museums, but I found that generally people don’t study photography. There are a lot of things that can be said in photographs but people don’t relate to them.”

Many photographers have been inspired as much by his attitude as his photographs, which is why you will see so many William Klein quotes in posts and articles about his life and work.  More artist than photojournalist, his lack of respect for the established order, his raw technique and the way he interacts with his subjects make him  one of photography’s great sources of inspiration.

 

Alcohol, Ether and Gun Cotton

Ruined Manor Hampton GayEarly photography was not easy.  The wet- plate collodian  process used between the 1850s and 1880s uses a solution of gun-cotton in ether and alcohol and requires the entire photographic process including coating the plate, exposing and developing it to be completed within fifteen minutes.

These and other challenges faced by early photographers were brought home to me by the the recent BBC documentary ‘Britain in Focus’, produced in partnership with the National Media Museum and presented by Eamonn Mccabe.  The first episode covered the earliest period of Photography in Britain – from polymath inventor Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s to Peter Henry Emerson in the last years of the nineteenth century.  The journey surveyed some of the greatest pioneers of early photography in their most famous locations: Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Newhaven, Roger Fenton in the Crimea, Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Robert Howlett in the Isle of Dogs and Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads.

I am familiar with the work of most of the photographers in the program, but curiously I had not come across Roger Fenton.  I was hugely impressed by his images and a little research showed him to be an extremely important photographer.  Born into a wealthy banking family in 1819, he studied law at Oxford and painting in Paris before he took up photography, learning the early Calotype process developed by Fox Talbot.  Fenton was a founder member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), the first official photographer of the British Museum and quite possibly the world’s first officially appointed war photographer, photographing the Crimean War in the first systematic coverage of a conflict in 1855. 

Alcohol Ether and Gun Cotton
Roger Fenton’s Wagon

Fenton’s connections led to his commission by the British government to photograph the Crimean war – a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against a somewhat unlikely alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  He took a photographic assistant, a servant and a large horse-drawn van converted from a merchant’s wine wagon to carry his cumbersome large format glass plate photographic equipment (see image, right).   The wagon offered a good target for Turkish artillery and Fenton also suffered from the high temperatures, broken ribs and cholera.  Nevertheless, and despite the long exposures and rapid processing required, he was able to capture 350 images, most of which were later exhibited across Britain and displayed to the British and French royal families.  Fenton was a technically accomplished photographer and his large format images from Crimea are striking.  They consist mainly of posed portraits and scenes and landscapes of battle sites including the iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Though he saw plenty of horrors during the conflict, he did not record any with his camera, most likely because his government patrons wanted the images that could be used as part of a campaign to counter reports of wide spread military incompetence in a war that was unpopular with both the press and the public.

The depth of field made possible by the large format, together with marvellous tone and composition make Roger Fenton’s work quite extraordinary.   In addition to his war photography he shot royal portraits, architecture, landscapes (such as those of Bolton Abbey covered in the documentary) and still life.   He regarded photography as both art and business and abandoned it entirely in 1863 to return to law when he saw its status was diminished to a craft – illustrated by the 1862 International Exhibition’s placement of photography in the section reserved for instruments and machinery.  He died only a few years later in 1869.

Large format film photography, and particularly wet-plate collodian images, have a unique look that can not be reproduced with 35mm cameras – the shot of Roger Fenton’s wagon clearly shows this.   However, the supporting image in this post is an homage to it.  The shot of the ruined manor at Hampton Gay (which burned down in 1887) gives the impression of a shallow depth of focus at distance using motion blur.  It was sepia toned and I added some grain and lens falloff in post production.  The shot was taken on a Nikon Df DSLR mounted on a tripod with a 40 second exposure at f13 using a black glass ND filter.  At some point I’d love to take a large format camera out to shoot the ruined manor, preferably a glass plate camera.  I doubt I will ever mange it, but if anyone in Oxfordshire has the equipment and expertise and is open to hiring both, I’d be very open to it.

 

 

Fox Talbot and Early Photography

Fox Talbot Early Photography

The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by  Time Out  and ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times.  I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.

Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800.  He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.

It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.)  This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637).  Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects.  These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods.  He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.

There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers.  France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure.  Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career.  He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative.   Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition.  Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum.   It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

Continue reading “Fox Talbot and Early Photography”

Back to Film with The Nikon F3

V and A Museum Knight's TombIt has been a long time since I shot with film.  My last film camera was a Canon IXUS, an automatic compact which took APS film 20 years ago.  Though I have always had a camera to hand since I was a small boy I was strictly a point and shoot photographer until I moved to digital, and didn’t move to an SLR until after I had turned to digital.  Recently, whilst staying with friends in Stockholm, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives.  The Nikon F3 model I picked out was somewhat worn and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was very taken with it and bought it on impulse together with some Ilford black and white film.

That evening I did a bit of research and discovered that the F3, the successor to the legendary F and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras; it was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001.   Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries.  This dependance on the battery power was initially quite controversial and adoption was not universal amongst Nikon professional shooters.  Those fears turned out to be unfounded as the F3 turned out to be of the same bulletproof nature as the F and F2 and very reliable.

Continue reading “Back to Film with The Nikon F3”

The Timeless Quality of Black & White Photographs

Timeless Quality of Black and WhiteBlack and white images often possess a timeless quality that is more difficult to achieve with colour images. This is largely because colour provides more visual clues as to when a photograph was taken. Variance in the colours themselves can sometimes suggest a specific era –  the difference between the colour renditions of the 1970s for example, and today are often discernible; this is due to differences in colour processing, which have changed significantly over time.  The first permanent color photograph was taken in the 1860s using the colour separation method, which required shooting three separate black and white photos using three different coloured filters which are then projected together to create a color image.   By the first decade of the twentieth century colour separation using the Autochrome process which used millions of tiny colour filters made of potato starch spread over the surface of a plate of glass was available.  In the 1930s multi-layered colour film was developed, the first of which was Kodachrome.  The 1960s saw the development of instant photographs by Polaroid, and in the 1970s the C-41 chromogenic colour negative process replaced the C-22 process that Kodak had introduced in the 1950s.  Printed colour images may also be subject to varying degrees of instability as they age, which is also helpful in dating them.

With the advent of digital photography these clues have disappeared, but colour is also an element of fashion which inevitably gives a better sense of when the picture was taken.  Regardless of changes in fashion, colour provides a level of detail absent from black and white pictures – there is just less information for us to process, making a picture more difficult to date.   This is helpful in many genres of photography but is especially so for travel, street and portrait photography.  Whilst we know the approximate date we took our pictures, if when these photos were taken is difficult to discern, it seems to imbue them with additional value.  Why this should be a virtue is largely attributable to the notion of the ‘classic’ – something long-standing that does not date with age.  Synonyms of the word classic give us a clue to the value implied by the term: simple, elegant, understated, uncluttered, restrained, time-honoured, timeless, ageless, abiding, enduring and immortal.   Portrait photographer Anne Geddes made the point well when she said: “The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.”

Another aspect of timelessness, although more subjective, is that many photographers consider black and white photography promotes a stronger emotional connection with people.  Canadian photographer Ted Grant’s quote on this is well known: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”
   Souls being more durable and important than clothes (to all but the fashion industry!) this quality naturally creates a more timeless photograph.  Black and white photography preceded colour and so many of the pioneering masters of photography from Adams to Weston shot in black and white.  This adds a significant pedigree and a degree of nostalgia to black and white images.

The accompanying photo is of Newcastle based photographer Irena Childers and was shot in Garth Park, Bicester, as part of a camera club shoot.  It strikes me that the picture could have been taken at any time between from 1950 and the present day, but this only became apparent when I performed the mono conversion with Silver Efex.  The colour version just didn’t have the same timeless quality…

When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism

Waterloo_placeIn the earliest days of photography it took a mastery of optics, chemistry, and an arcane workflow to take and process a photograph using the cumbersome cameras of the time.  To read more about this, see my post on Fox Talbot and Early Photography.   This time-consuming hybrid discipline restricted photography to a small and skilled group of people.

The introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, an inexpensive handheld unit, changed all that, and is one of the more important milestones in the history of photography.  Like many important events, it spawned changes that its inventor could not have envisioned. The Kodak introduced a system of photography based on flexible, lightweight roll film.  In addition, it simplified camera operation by providing fixed focus, a single shutter speed and pre-loaded film.  The need to work with chemicals was dispensed with by the introduction of film processing as a service.  Together these refinements made photography far more accessible.   In 1892, the year George Eastman’s company was renamed The Eastman Kodak Company, Eastman Kodak coined the advertising slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”.  What Eastman could not have foreseen was the backlash to this popularisation of photography.

The production of a vastly increased number of spontaneously shot, realistic but unremarkable ‘snapshot’ images, prompted a protracted public debate about whether photography could be considered to be art or was purely a utilitarian medium produced by a mechanical recording device.  Inspired by Peter Henry Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography (1889) and rejecting the notion of photography as solely a documentary medium, a small group of photographers set out to show that photography was indeed fine art.   Some of the better known are Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946); Edward Steichen (1879-1973); Edward Weston (1886-1958); Paul Strand (1890-1976);  Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79); Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901); Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936); Robert Demachy (1859-1936) and my personal favourite, the Belgian Leonard Misonne (1870-1943).   These photographers formed clubs and salons such as The Linked Ring, Photo-Secession, The Royal Photographic Society and The Photo-Club of Paris and created a movement known as Pictorialism.   Pictorialism was also the product of photography and the world of art coming closer together at the end of the nineteenth century.  Artists such as Manet and Gauguin used photographs to capture images that would be rendered as paintings back in the studio, whilst some pictorialist photographers (such as Henry Peach Robinson) had been trained as painters. Continue reading “When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism”

The Walls of Ávila

Avila SpainThis is the oldest picture I have taken on this website. It was taken on 110 film in 1987.   A colleague at work was attending a film class and was asking around for pictures he could use in class.

I had visited Ávila whilst in Madrid as a guest of a friend who had moved out there and this was the best shot I could find.  I was amazed by what he did with it.  He cropped it, converted it to monochrome and added some additional grain.   At the time I just took snapshots, so this was a revelation to me.  I consider this my first decent picture and my first step into black and white photography – a medium I have come to love.  I still like the image; the absence of anything else in frame, the slightly brooding sky, the way the walls stretch off into the distance and of course the subject itself, the mighty, pristine walls are what make the picture work.

Ávila, the ‘City of Saints and Stones, was founded in the 11th century to protect the Spanish territories from the Moors.  It is the capital of the province of the same name in Castile and León in North West Spain, 110 km from Madrid and separated from the capital by the Guadarrama mountain chains. It is 74 km from Segovia.  At 1,126 meters above sea level, it is the highest provincial capital in Spain and sits on the top of a rocky outcrop in the midst of a barren, stone covered plain.

The medieval walls were built between the 11th-14th centuries and are astonishingly well preserved and the most complete fortifications in Spain.   They stretch for 2.5km, stand an average of 12 metres in height, enclose area is 31 hectares (77 acres) and have 9 gates.  The Old Town of Ávila has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, largely due to the walls which are its most impressive monument but also for its 12th Century cathedral and Romanesque churches. I want to go back and shoot Ávila at night, as it is beautifully illuminated – apparently it is the largest fully illuminated monument in the world.