New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 34 September 10 to 16, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

In Your Face
William Klein
Fashion + Street

Photo by William Klein . Source:
William Klein, "Smoke + Veil, Paris" 1958.
“I liked Cartier Bresson’s pictures,“ William Klein once said, “I didn’t like his rules.“ Among the many rules Klein did not like, one in particular stands out. Against the diffidence of his predecessor, he flaunted an unabashed aggressiveness. If Cartier-Bresson tiptoed around life so as not to disturb it, Klein willfully knocked it over the head. Neither subtle like Frank nor poetic like Kertesz, Klein’s work was raw, confrontational. At times deliberately antagonistic, he would gleefully provoke a reaction from a subject in order to get what he considered a good shot. His was a kind of outlaw sensibility channeled into art, the photographic act in his hands a mode of attack.

Often compared to his great contemporary, Robert Frank, whose book The Americans appeared around the same time and to the same shocked dismay, Klein’s imagery, more forthrightly confrontational and assaultive, has none of the compassionate subtext, the subterranean sorrow one finds in Frank. If there is a quiet understated lament in Frank; there is simply aggression in Klein. For all his years his Paris he remained a very American photographer that way, having more in common with Garry Winogrand and Wee Gee than with any of the Europeans.

Klein’s famous book on New York with its coarse tones and high contrast glories in this quality. He wanted, he said, for this book to be “as vulgar and brutal as the News.“ And if the coarseness he wanted was not there in the scene, he would pump it up in the darkroom. A painter by training, he simply considered the negative another kind of canvas. When tilting the easel in the darkroom made for a more interesting image, he did it, ultimately going back and painting directly on his prints, marking his preferred frames in a bold red. More than any other photographer well known for reportage, Klein inserted himself in the image.

Photo by William Klein . Source:
William Klein, "See-Saw Gang".
William Klein brought the serendipity of the street into fashion. Of course others, notably Richard Avedon, used the street as well, but Klein’s work had its own particular twist. As if guided by a secret imp there is a touch of mockery in the whole way he approached fashion. Avedon’s model may stand next to an elephant, but she remains impeccably elegant; Klein’s model looks goofy or has the hardness of a hooker. He liked nothing better than to catch these pretty ladies in their neat pill box hats, off guard and slightly askew. But then again that’s how he photographed people in general. Slightly askew.

But let me not sound as if I do not admire his work. I do. Oddly enough some of my favorite Klein images, such as Theatre Tickets and Candy Store, are missing from this Howard Greenberg show, even more surprising because the gallery has them in its archive. A bigger lapse is the entire omission of his behind the scenes fashion series which, in my opinion, is his most complex work, both structurally and anecdotally.

Klein’s combative and faintly mocking style became the norm in the generation that followed him, especially in the street photography of Winogrand and Meyerowitz. Eventually morphing into the full blown irony of the 80s and 90s when everything was done with a wink and a shrug, it is now one of the dominant styles of our time. And while the twin shows at Greenberg are excellent introductions to William Klein’s work, what is really required is a full-blown museum retrospective.

William Klein
Fashion + Street

Howard Greenberg
41 E 57th St. 14th Fl
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Friday, March 1 to
Saturday, April 27, 2013
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Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat