William Klein: Life is Good & Good for You in New York

A few months ago I moved to Rabie Ridge – a coloured neighbourhood on the west side of Tembisa – and a couple of weeks into my stay my place was broken into, resulting in the loss of my Joburg in Motion (JIM) project along with my laptop and all my backup. I lived in town for eight months before the move and all the while shooting JIM as a way of recording my everyday encounters with the flux city because I was always stupefied by its frenzy and energy. Alas, the blow to my progress came just as I was getting around to editing the work, and so I naturally took a break from shooting because reshooting the project presented a slight logistical nightmare as I was no longer in the city.

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I am back shooting & working on resurrecting JIM, and as I go about unpacking the project, I find myself back in section 707 (Joburg library) where I am referencing William Klein’s New York 1954.55. The original edition titled Life is Good & Good for You in New York was published in 1956 but never in America. The editors thought Klein’s work to be ‘anti-America’, as it unveiled an America they called “too black” and “too one-sided.” The edition I am devouring is a re-edition published in 1996, with the help of some European, Japanese and American publishers. It is here that I reference Klein’s brilliant work while I unpack JIM.

INTRODUCING HIGH ARTISTRY?

Why Klein you might ask? The simple answer is what any photographer friend of mine will tell you when asked who my favourite photographers are. Along with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, William Klein makes the cut as one of my favourite photographers of all time. Perhaps it’s due to my undying love for 1950s photography & its nuances, or that all three masters dabbled in both street and fashion photography. Klein’s New York is a masterpiece of street photography and the only question on my mind is how does one introduce a book of this stature? I guess you start as William did in the preface:

“I’ve explained many times how my 1956 New York book came about. But since not everybody was listening here goes (…). Before making the book, I was doing hard-edged geometric paintings in Paris. When I came back to the city in 1954 after eight years away, I decided to keep a photographic diary. These were practically my first “real photographs.” I had neither training nor complexes. But necessity and choice. I decided anything would have to go. A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast cock-eyed framing, accidents, whatever happens. As for content: pseudo-ethnography, parody, and Dada.”

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He adds:

“All the sights and sounds I missed or had forgotten or never even knew suddenly moved me much. I was in a trance but I was able to do something about what I felt. I had a camera, though I barely knew how to use it.

I am, as William was, “fed up with the pretended objectivity and [the] invisible camera ethic of the day. I have decided to continue where William left off so I too can “be visible, [to] intervene, and show it!” I feel a kind frustration with the current crop of street photographers and the invisible stealth, the rigidity of well-composed images taken in the shadows. For me, the images have become repetitive and somewhat unimaginative, with one image looking like the next as most try catapulting themselves as the next Henry Cartier-Bresson, the enigmatic ghost in the shadows.

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Klein actually bought his first camera from Bresson, the running joke which proved true to the ability of authorship within the photography world. What makes William’s images exceptional for me is that unlike that of his contemporaries, they are like a raw slap in the face or a hard kick to the nuts. He is coming at you with his camera and wide lens. There is just no escaping him, with all his blur, grain, contrast cock-eyed framing, and accidents. Of course all this may sound like a nightmare, but in reality, his work stands out because it lulls you in. Looking at the images, the distance between your senses and the image disappears and it feels like you are there in person, witnessing the scene in its unsullied state with a touch of Klein’s carefree nature, witt, and New York flare.

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Of the images in the book, I love his Nine Possible Attitudes Towards a Camera on page 49 (above). Like the title suggests, this image immortalized the looks and attitudes of all nine subjects within and you can clearly see (with great delight), that all subjects are aware of William and his camera. All of them act out in one way or the other, willingly and unwillingly. Five smiles, one pair of folded arms, two straight faces, one face cropped out with the exception of an ear and finally the tallest person in the frame pulling funny one. The lanky fella seems caught in-between poses. He looks uncomfortable as his face turns into what seems like discontent but also a sense of humour that is present in the man as if the pose was intended.

I SHOOT WHAT I LIKE

Of his other images, the following ones lingered, and this is owed to the fact that William provides captions in the preface to go along with each. The captions provide insights as to his feelings, thoughts, and what was happening at the time of each shot.

page 58/9: While across town, mid 5th avenue, with a giant blossom, corsage kid gloves, and wavy haired husband, one celebrates Easter Sunday.
Page 58/9: While across town, mid 5th Avenue, with a giant blossom, corsage kid gloves, and wavy haired husband, one celebrates Easter Sunday.

 

 page 72/3: Gloomy knights of columbus in their parade drag block-long rosary.
Page 72/3: Gloomy knights of columbus in their parade drag block-long rosary.

 

page 92/3: Real people and Unreal. Why is the man so pleased his girl is developing cancer? And She? Or was it something she said? Or he? I thought of Bourke White’s photo of unemployed people lined up under the American dream poster. I thought of the controversy over Winston’s grammar. Like, indeed. As, my dear. And I thought of a girl who propped up her monster blossom with school notebooks to our sneaky admiral. And I thought I am home.
Page 92/3: Real people and Unreal. Why is the man so pleased his girl is developing cancer? And She? Or was it something she said? Or he? I thought of Bourke White’s photo of unemployed people lined up under the American dream poster. I thought of the controversy over Winston’s grammar. Like, indeed. As, my dear. And I thought of a girl who propped up her monster blossom with school notebooks to our sneaky admiral. And I thought I am home.

What I admire of Williams Klein’s work– whether it be his movies or books– is that he is always a rebel renegade against all traditions. For me, he is one of few photographers whose character can be found etched in the images produced, not a mere distant hologram with the camera. He is always close, close enough to seep through the images. The rough, uncanny style, the courage and naivety to move closer, a challenge for all street photographers today as the camera is thought of as an intrusion and violation of personal space, thanks paparazzi!

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William Klein’s New York 1954.55 is available at the Joburg Library section 707 or preferably get yourself a copy on Amazon for US$167.00 for a used copy and US$240.00 for a new one. Feel free to drop a comment with some of your favourite images by William Klein. Also feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or subscribe to our mailing list below.

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