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.

 

Darkness at Noon in New York

Darkness at Noon in New YorkThe Chrysler Building is a favourite of mine, and a great subject for black and white photography.    The metallic exterior, the sunburst on the crown and the metal eagles make it an architectural wonder for me.

The Chrysler is a reflection of both the Art Deco era and the machine age and has strong automotive accents.   at 319 m, it was was briefly the world’s tallest building before that honour passed to the Empire State Building in 1931.  It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s and is still the tallest brick building in the world, albeit with a steel frame, and the 5th tallest building in New York.  The corners of the 61st floor are decorated with those fabulous metal eagles whilst replicas of the 1920s Chrysler bonnet ornaments (aka radiator caps) adorn the corners of the 31st floor.

I took the shot you can see here on a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm lens at 112mm.  It was shot from 42nd Street in New York City at ground level and the picture was taken in broad daylight, in the early afternoon.   This statement sometimes results in disbelief, but at night what is most visible of the crown of the building is the triangular illuminated windows, so the building appears quite unlike my picture.    A quick search on Google Images for ‘Chrysler Building at night’ will confirm the difference.  The effect you can see here, which I refer to as ‘Darkness at Noon’ relies on  a good quality circular polariser, the nature of the camera’s light meter, and an underexposure/red filter combination during mono coversion.  Let me break this down step by step.

A circular polariser is an indispensible piece of kit that increases color saturation and decrease reflections.  It is also one of the only lens filters the effect of which cannot be replicated by editing.  Importantly, it can also darken skies, which is what I was using one for in this instance.  I used a Hoya Pro-1, which does the job very well.

The second part of the equation is not a technique but a property of the camera, whose reflective light meter wants to average out every scene to middle grey.  What this means in practice is that the brighter the subject (building) is, the darker the background (sky) will be.  This is why the sky looks dark blue in many Mediterranean holiday photos – the white buildings darken the sky.  I took a lot of shots of the Chrysler (around 50) and one in particular had a brighter building and a darker sky, as it had caught the sunlight particularly well at that moment.  So, I took the best shot I had, in which the sky was already dark blue – helped along by the circular polariser – and did my raw editing in Aperture, adjusting the curves into a gentle ‘S’ shape to make the image more punchy.

From there I moved on to Photoshop, to perform the mono conversion.  I use the Silver Efex Pro plugin, which is an amazing bit of software – it has a powerful set of options but also a rich variety of presets, which makes it easy to use.  I selected the ‘underexpose’ preset and added the red filter, which together will turn a dark sky pitch black, and the image was complete: a silver building on a black background.   Or perhaps, a silver building caught in a flash of darkness…