Brooklyn + Klein

by William Klein
Contrasto 2014

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 76

brooklyn cover Contrasto.jpg

William Klein is best known for his energetic, frame-filling photography, mostly on the street, mostly of strangers, in cities around the world: New York, Tokyo, Paris, Rome, Moscow.  His 1956 book Life is Good & Good For You in New York: Trance Witness Revels was a kaleidoscopic study in black and white of an electric New York, startling in its immediacy.  His high contrast, grainy, blurred images challenged prevailing modernist understandings of photography’s essential characteristics as a medium.  In a 2012 essay about that book, Max Kozloff wrote: “He appears to have had a score to settle, expressed through a photography of ecstatic and ravaged vengeance.”

Mister Steeplechase © William Klein

Mister Steeplechase © William Klein

Klein’s technique in his early street work, was not, however, a matter of style, but of ecstasy.  He seemed to recognize what was alive in his subjects at the very moment in which he photographed them.  He could create a charged emotional connection in the briefest of interactions; we see the subjects looking at the camera and they are clearly responding to and connecting with Klein.   Klein’s projects were investigations into the relationship between society and the condition of living, recognition of individuals thriving in or in spite of the built environments surrounding them, even as they were pressured by those environments.

Klein was clearly ahead of his time as a photographer in the 1950s, reveling in the visual density of cities, making work that was both intuitive and incisive, and as a filmmaker since the 1960s, critiquing consumer culture, mass culture, and political charlatanism.  In the 1980s he painted on his enlarged contact sheets.  In Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 film La Jetée, Klein portrayed a man of the future.  His character enabled the time-travelling protagonist to save the present from its destiny as a world choked by war; this last is just a footnote to his own accomplishments, but the figure of a “future man” feels nonetheless apt as a description of Klein.

Jamaican Day Parade © William Klein

Jamaican Day Parade © William Klein

In 2013, at the age of 85, Klein, who has lived in Paris for most of his life, returned to New York to photograph in Brooklyn, commissioned by Sony’s Global Imaging Ambassadors program.  The resulting Brooklyn + Klein was published by Contrasto, and Klein plans to do four more city studies with Sony.  His means of working have necessarily changed: in Brooklyn he shot digitally with Sony equipment, and he travelled with the aid of a wheelchair.  In Sony’s promotional video we see Klein shuttled between locations; he receives advice from an assistant on the low light capabilities of the cameras.  The endeavor feels more like a sponsored event than a personal project.

While the new work may not be groundbreaking, as so much of his earlier work was, it is unmistakably Klein.  He continues to seek out crowds in order to find moments of heightened emotion while delighting in the visual chaos of built environments.  Klein visits a number of parades and festivals: the Jamaican Day Parade, the AfroPunk festival, and street fairs. He also finds his way to a Hasidic study group and wedding, a Chinese wedding, a tattoo parlor, and a police station.  He photographs colorful storefronts lit up at night, Coney Island signage and roller coasters.   It’s an explosively colorful and diverse Brooklyn imagined as the New York that is not Manhattan.  The book begins with the Manhattan Bridge and ends with the Brooklyn Bridge.

Graffiti painting, Williamsburg © William Klein

Graffiti painting, Williamsburg © William Klein

The pictures are not as close as those he used to make, but the frames are still full, and he embraces the subtle gradations of color that the digital palette makes available: black and blue police; neon reds, yellows and greens; parade costumes of every imaginable color and texture.  Klein sees a wide variety of skin tones, in a range of light, day and night, fluorescent, incandescent, in the heat of the beach and after it’s rained on the street.  Indeed, where Klein once challenged unforgiving film photography by pushing it far past what were believed to be its acceptable limits, he now delights in the tonal capabilities of a very forgiving digital process. 

It’s telling that these new Brooklyn pictures don’t entirely reiterate the Klein that we already know and yet they are clearly recognizable as Klein’s.  His eye for life, ephemeral and crucial, persists.  He is still fascinated by the inextricability of living figure and urban ground, even as he is not quite as close up as he once was.  The pictures feel less surprising, the moments extended, but it’s the same eye for life, no matter what the speed, that persists in these long breaths in Brooklyn.

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.

Buy the book here.