PRINT May 1981

William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties

THE PHOTOGRAPHER WILLIAM KLEIN had initially been a painter embroiled in experimental Parisian abstraction of the ’50s. Later, in the ’60s, among his many careers, he became known as one of the most successful photographers of international high fashion. At the peripheries, then, of the work for which he’s justly famous—gutsy reports of the megapolis 25 years ago—there are analogies to the efforts of two other Kleins, Yves and Calvin.

This displaced New Yorker, whose enunciation is disconcertingly suave and whose face recalls that of Antonin Artaud, was enchanted with sleaziness. Until Klein came along it was not widely imagined that that which was contemptibly low, mean and tacky in our urban environment could be enjoyed for its own sake. I get my definition of sleaziness from the dictionary, which doesn’t take one very far. In Klein’s photos the condition is much more vividly described as the raucous, debased, lurid, vulgar and slovenly perspectives of the modern city, a locale indecent and unpresentable, therefore unfit for and ill-used by its inhabitants. His pictures of the ’50s gave news—little of it actually sensational—one didn’t want to know, though its abrasive presence was hard to avoid.

Sleaziness is not the same as poverty, for all that they’re compatible deficits, and Klein’s furor is not the same as social engagement. The world he depicts, which has come apart—fissures everywhere and eruptions of crud—was, for him, a visual discovery. He can be said, almost, to have invented it—at a propitious moment of our cultural history. The French have a phrase for what he did to our Gothams: mise en abîme. For him, the streets were populated by hotshots, wiseacres and meatballs, though a longer look shows that such thoroughfares teemed with harassed or strained people and anxious kids. Isn’t this like the first impression one gets when returning from Europe to New York: an indescribable filth, an unbearable pressure, and a disproportionate number of crackups aimlessly wandering about?

“On Forty-second street, posters in violent colors announced thriller-films–horror films–gay films. I stopped there. On either side of the box office, distorting mirrors reflected the passersby; they were long and broad. I looked at myself; I was on the point of making faces; fog rolled in my brain. . . .” The above, by Simone de Beauvoir, from her journal of the ’50s, America Day by Day, sums up quite well the wide-angle atmosphere of Klein’s New York. More than that, it suggests the vertigo induced by the spectacle he makes of it.

Klein certainly had as much of de Beauvoir’s wonder, none of her sour crotchets, and a different sort of animus. While he soft-pedals it now, he must have been affected by the anti-Americanism of the French left, though not by its brittle Stalinism. Everything about him suggests an anarchic temperament, capable of playing any worldly system to the hilt and then of throwing away its benefits. With his hometown, New York, to which he returned at the age of 26, he appears to have had a score to settle, expressed through a photography of ecstatic and ravished vengeance.

He literally blitzed the place in about three months. The full title of the book containing the results of this astonishing campaign (published only in Europe, 1956, and usually referred to simply as New York) is Life is Good and Good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels. Mangling a tabloid phrase that might have been “Chance Witness Reveals,” the words signal not only a playful mind but a surreal impact that must have been much more concrete for Klein here than in postwar Paris.

“This city of headlines and gossip and sensation,” Klein said, “. . . needed a kick in the balls.” As he told John Heilpern, for an essay in William Klein: Photographs, the new Aperture monograph on his work:

I saw the book as a monster big-city Daily Bugle with its scandals and scoops, that you’d find blowing in the streets at three in the morning. . . . For me photography was good old-fashioned muckraking and sociology. . . . I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter. . . . I was a newspaperman! Or a Frenchman. One time in Harlem I cooled things down by saying I was French. ‘Hey! This guy ain’t white. He’s French!’"

It’s interesting to make the obvious comparison between Klein and Weegee, who had a comparable stake in a squalid New York and who really was from the News. Linking them like this, one sees immediately that—aside from the similarity of their supreme voyeurist chutzpah—one was a primitive putting on airs, while the other was a modernist slumming with jazzy abandon. There is hardly anything like the real-life murder-and-mayhem of the journalist in Klein (only toy guns and charades of violence), and there is nothing of Klein’s extreme artistic rawness visually decomposing before your eyes in Weegee. This is not simply the difference between a parochial spirit and a cosmopolitan vision. The real contrast emerges in their attitudes towards the media, which both exploited, but for opposite reasons.

That to which Weegee frustratedly aspired, the status of an artist, was the easiest thing for Klein to shuck off, because he had an artistic identity as a painter from the first. Weegee blazed out space for his Expressionism in a genre that, for all outward appearances, kept him a colorful hack. Klein, for his part, was an uncontainable esthetic guerilla who made use of corporate sponsors for purposes at the edge of their taste, testing the axiom that the more they funded the more he could provoke. The entry of both men into the fashion world (a few shots by Weegee and a longer stint by Klein) coincided with the moment when editors decided they liked the frisson of models seen in working-class milieux. Coming from such precincts themselves, the photographers could have had only a volatile response towards such a condescending program (the have-nots as backdrop).

Weegee worked within the illustrative confines of tabloid graphics with hypertensive pointedness, while Klein diffused their headline and layout strategies into his street shots. Abounding with billboards, signs and hard-sell messages of every sort, his pictures are, in fact, about media as much as they deal with the people who are targeted by them. Everything within his frames grabs at your attention; the more incongruous, grotesque, or disjointed the presence, the better. At the same time, he was no more a muckraker than a Frenchman, just as it’s clear that he had great aptitude but no final calling for painting or fashion photography. Like Weegee in his fun-house mood, ultraquick reflexes and unstanchable energy that spilled over into such modes as film, Klein differed in that he had no psychic base. No one acted the poseur with more conviction.

We’re entitled to ask what a figure with such equivocal resources contributed to the art of photography. Of late, the medium, during the ’50s, has been considered to have been pretty much a one-chicken town—the chicken being Robert Frank. Photographers of a generation older than Frank’s—André Kertész, Lisette Model, John Guttman, Harry Callahan and Eugene Smith—certainly did not hesitate to exist during the ’50s, which they accented memorably. Frank, though, and Klein brought to the decade a feeling for its woes which, in retrospect, synthesizes it for us. There hovers in their work an oppressive sense of the odds against which people struggled, the dismal mood and chance of defeat that lowered the emotional horizon. This was all the more striking because of the general affluence of the period, underway shortly before the start of Frank’s and Klein’s major efforts, in the great boom of 1955. These transplanted photographers found live visual metaphors for the bleakness of this Cold War moment, and the deadness of the things in it. For those who remember the era, these photographic evocations of it have the keenest resonance; for those who came later, The Americans and New York offer a wondrous guide. One cannot suppose that the photographers had anything as simple as sympathy for what they saw. It’s a question, rather, of their having developed an unlikely poetry, as they came of age, to express their awareness of their time.

The nominal technical innovations that characterize these two books have been misleadingly heroicized. It has been imagined that virtue resides in the unexpected looseness with which they demonstrated that a 35mm camera could be handled. Untidy framing, blurry or grainy description, overcharged contrasts, abrupt or gauche shifts in compositional weight: these have been celebrated as signs of instinctual release which were somehow, in the end, good for photography. I’ve nothing against an argument that approves of mutinies against an otherwise convention-bound professional environment. But the trouble with this reasoning is that it tends to reduce meaning to a set of strategies rather than understand the form of a photograph as being at the service of a human consciousness. The photographs in question are simply not about being faster in their timing, or more gestural, or less prejudiced toward clear focus than earlier practice. Some of Bill Brandt’s and Walker Evans’ work, and a large measure of Ben Shahn’s, had already led the way in that direction, anyway. No doubt Klein and Frank were more radical in their dependence on chance. The accelerated tempos of their art have suggested to some writers a risk-taking mentality, akin to Action Painting. Recently, for instance, Klein’s “insistence on physicality” reminded Ben Lifson of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Without denying the parallel, I see these photographers putting their “action” to use in a very special way: as a means of providing recognitions of a whole historical period.

A 35 mm street shot was generally apprehended as a glimpse, a partial view only, whether snatched or studied. To make it count, despite its narrative limitations, one had either to assume something like “the decisive moment,” or build up a story or a theme through an accretion of related frames, much like a stilted movie. Frank and Klein, contrary to both methods, developed a form of witness in which the whole of their perception is implied or evident in the single fugitive glance. Or rather, the avidity of their feeling tenaciously charges subjects they could not predict. There is a constancy in the way, but not in what, they saw. They breathed the air about them, and their task was to find the means to invoke the effect of that air upon social behavior. Once this mission was grasped—and one reckons it happened early on—there was no need for them to generalize or homogenize anything. In fact, they freed themselves to concentrate on the most minute slivers of conduct, throwaway episodes, confident in the unanticipated but exemplary value of such subjects. Call it aura or mood, the matters with which they dealt are enveloped by it. I am talking about a tendentious response to conditions of life in all their various reflexes and textures, that is, in their intangible as well as their material guise. Confronting the culture of ’50s America, the two photographers sensed it uneasily as everywhere and nowhere . . . almost as if it were a kind of expressive dust that settled into the pores of their film, now heavily, now lightly. Weegee could show a bunch of street kids who had opened a hydrant, and the scene would result in nothing more than “human interest.” Klein and Frank, with similarly effusive material, can haunt you, on the other hand, with a sense of desolation. Empathetic and distanced at the same time, their work broadened in range, transfiguring the myriad circumstances of people into a myth of their present.

Robert Frank, I’m convinced, worked in a pastoral mode. But it was an abused pastoral, lonely and tedious in its reaches, so that when he brought his concerns to bear on city life the metropolis had a great deal to tell us of the sadness he saw in the country. His subjects may have been attached to each other but are dissociated in space. Even when working up close, he reveals how little they command that space, and the unresigned but apprehensive look of lostness is stamped on their faces. With William Klein, though, there is just as much melancholy but it’s filtered through a visual war of nerves, a fact which makes it quite outrageous. The complete city man, both intrusive and obtrusive, Klein often incited his subjects, who hammed it up or looked annoyed or puzzled. When you view his books, you feel that you yourself are a conspicuously uncalled-for presence, hurried in and out of bitter districts in which you have no business.

The experience of paging through New York comes to seem almost one of being on the run, of stumbling over obstacles, ending finally in visual fatigue. The big city often does that to its denizens, bombards them with a feckless montage. This effect is brilliantly managed by Klein in a layout that allows the eye no place to rest and hardly any stop. Initially resembling a magazine, with its double spreads, scattered frames and multiple image scales, the design of the book quickly goes haywire. There are no adjacent captions, for instance, and the double spreads—two pictures—often run smack together, separated only by the gutter. When two such images are loaded with type, as in window displays, the effect they have on each other is one of mutual violation. Klein will act out a great deal, in fact, to cancel the integrity of single shots—by arranging them in vertical bands or deploying them in checkerboard configurations, by setting them in black margins that break up the white page, by suggesting possible bleeds or sudden crops, by mimicking family albums or comic strips—anything to introduce extraneous ideas, aspects of photo-culture to the side of what he’s doing.

In terms of grammatical structure, this photographic divertissement is a text without commas, though it has plenty of exclamation points. It swims with verbs and adverbs, some adjectives and fewer nouns. Phrases and clauses dangle in odd places. Momentum is stalled by repetitions and is then hastened on by feverish “lists.” About 42nd Street, in notes for the book, Klein himself writes as he shoots and designs:

Street looks like a pin-ball machine, all bumpers lit and bonus and billion and tilt . . . chili-chowder soup from Breughel-Chaplin Studios . . . all back numbers of Drool, Quiver, and Queer . . . Stink-O-Matic, Vomitoriums, Pokerino . . . Films that have disappeared from every screen except . . . Ankara’s or Bangkok’s.

One has to flag down the activity of his mind just as one has to catch up with the sense of his pictures. Weird equivalents of each other, words and images comprise a stenography of dazzle, which is perfectly lucid though it lacks logic. Klein’s excitement is braced with a sensibility that verges on Pop, and is precocious for its time. It was some years later that Oldenburg jotted down these comparable thoughts: “I sing the bawdy electric. I sew the Broadway galactic. I slang the body eclectic. . . . I am for the art of bar-babble, tooth-picking, beer drinking, egg-salting, in-sulting.”

To make sense out of Klein’s first book, I’d have to judge it as a mass of contradictions, some deliberate, others perhaps not. His stance toward his subjects and his viewers is loaded with an antagonism—literally iconoclastic—that is inseparable from a playful punnishness (punishment?). He explodes the sign systems of book design with maximum polemical force, but at the cost of depreciating a number of images which were meant seriously and suffer at the hands of his exposition. Manifest on every page, his gift for parody is not so complacently ironic as that of Pop, nor is it single-mindedly dissident, as is that of John Heartfield, a precursor he may not have known about. Scorn for the intact image and the well-made print is, of course, a feature of the attack against the bourgeois art market that runs through a good many of the modern isms. But because Klein was already an authentic photographer, pictorial ideas of simultaneity and synesthesia involved in, say, the code language of Futurism, could be only an inflammatory overlay.

He came too late to express the Futurist euphoria for the grinding aspects of the city, yet a part of his style is decidedly Futurist in origin. It seems to me that blur, in Klein’s pictures, has some of the old scientific rationale. That is, it functions as the optical residue of the motion of bodies in space, alluded to here as a kind of distended placement. It’s enough to recall that in Milan in 1952 he aligned a series of vertical abstract paintings that were pivoted to create chance combinations in motion.

It doesn’t make much difference whether the effects he achieved in photography are called tonal or linear. Of great interest is the fact that the evident realism of his approach, accentuated by the grittiest motifs, seems in the process of being “steamed out.” The power of material comprehension is undermined and countermanded by a vaporous reverie. So the photographic act, for Klein, was a possessive gesture, and its result was a dwindling away, a gradual vanishing of things from sight. These psychic advances and recessions occur in a frame which is activated over and across to its furthest corners. Not people within an urbanscape, not architecture with signs of life, but the whole populated setting, far or close, draws his regard.

To describe the actual situations in his photos is to explain nothing about their capacity to move us. A man walks under the El on a sunny day. A bride opens the door of a car in an outlying neighborhood. A black boy, with a floral sport shirt, crouches for his portrait in front of a checkerboard storefront. And in his book on Rome, there are loafers clowning at a beach, and bemused men looking out from a barbershop at a passerby with a camera. Later, in his Moscow book, there’s an oppressive railway station, “Lenin and still Stalin,” as he calls it. In an alley, in his Tokyo book1, a half-naked man in a hood twists towards us as if in some arcane ritual. These are individual observations, expounding no particular ideas, yet, like scores of others from Klein’s travels, they exert an uncanny grip on the imagining mind. They are strangely noiseless but savage, memorable but not arresting. They give the impression of a bodiless life, other than our own; of societies not exactly alien to those we know or can remember, though they differ from them, as if they existed in a netherworld that corresponds only in its surfaces, not its substance, to the one that sustains us. The poignance of these visions issues from their insubstantiality, for the longer our acquaintance with them, the more they appear to transmute everything solid into shadows—until earthliness itself dissolves into little more than flickering light and shade.

The exile of William Klein—I mean from photographic discussion in the United States—strikes me as hard to justify, and the revival of interest in him just now is, I think, very curious. Someone who grasped the medium so easily, without prior experience, and who had so many other fish to fry later, has not been treated kindly by our professionals. (Not being one of them, Klein’s great advantage lay in not having to unlearn proper photographic conduct. To obtain his freshness Robert Frank had to exert greater effort.) Klein’s continued involvement with the international set and anti-Vietnam War politics, his chronic lamination of public opposites, was indigestible to our privatizing ’70s. They did him no justice. In Europe, however, his influence only grew stronger, in the work of the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken, the Englishman Donald McCullin and the Czech Josef Koudelka. In Japan those he’s affected are numerous. Through his example, the modes of public photojournalism grew seamier and darker in mood, while ambitious photographers were increasingly defecting from it here. The recent exhibitions of William Klein at the Museum of Modern Art (curated by Susan Kismaric) and at Light Gallery in New York, along with the publication of the Aperture monograph, offer a glossy restitution for his neglect. One is very thankful for them. They replace the fuse and run the projector for his silent movie. But as the film spools out, it’s not at all clear if the timing of this revival reflects consciousness of its real political irony. This poet of the epoch of McCarthy and the bomb is given a long delayed revival during the even more menacing age of Reagan. And the lesson the artist has to teach us is as explicit as ever.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and writer whose latest book is Photography and Fascination (Addison House, 1979).



1. The major photo books published by William Klein are: Life is Good and Good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels, Great Britain: Photography Magazine, 1956 (text in French); Rome, New York: Viking Press, 1958; Moscow, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1964; Tokyo, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1964.