“So, here is a photograph that was taken on St. Patricks Day. All these guys are Irish. A lot of the people in my photographs either look at me, or there is always somebody to the side who is looking to the group and saying, ‘What is this guy photographing?’ It wasn’t usual at that time, this is 1955, ’54. It was kind of surprising for a lot of people to see me photographing them, you know.” – Klein.
William Klein’s photography blurs the lines between raw, unfiltered critiques and classic beauty. His gritty, grainy, often blurred images of the 1950s would influence a generation of photographers, including Daido Moriyama. Klein never held back.
Born in New York in 1928 to a family of Jewish Hungarian immigrants and living in an Irish neighborhood, Klein grew up surrounded by anti-Semitism. “I was brought up on the streets. Part of a New York underclass.” He used art to escape, often visiting the Museum of Modern Art before eventually enlisting in the army at 18, where he was sent to Germany and France. Klein would enroll at the Sorbonne where he studied the history of art. Later he would study painting under Fernand Léger.
“Pseudo-poster for the American dream. Italian cop, integrated Hispanic, Yiddish momma, African-American lady plus beret. The melting pot.” – Klein
Klein split his time between New York and Paris, and his work divulged into two separate focuses. He began working for Vogue, where he created a style of fashion photography that greatly influenced his peers. He brought an energy and spontaneity into his fashion work that was derived from his street work, often putting models into chaotic scenes on the streets of major cities.
Over an eight-month period, Klein shot the body of work that would eventually become the seminal book, Life is Good & Good for You in New York (find the book here). Initially, he aimed to have the work published in Vogue, but they saw it as too critical and vulgar a view on the city. Eventually, it was published in 1957.
“Horsing around in Harlem, ‘Man, what do you want to take our picture for?’ Trying to escape the lens, but playful. A game.” – Klein
“New York is a monument to the dollar – the dollar is responsible for everything, good and bad. Everybody comes for it. No one can resist it.” – Klein
“He took the language of Tabloid Newspapers, that very grainy, black-and-white, direct way of looking at the world. I think coming back, he really smelled the energy of New York and wanted to translate that through these very grainy, black and white, almost stream of consciousness images.” – Martin Parr
“Another famous photograph, which was used a lot. These kids were just play-acting and they weren’t as tough as they look. I asked them to look tough and for me, it’s a self-portrait, you know? I also played on the streets with guns but I was also a sort of angelic. So I was both of them.” – Klein
“He had this eye that was kind of fearless. His pictures were raw, rugged, they were in your face. He seemed to have the courage to go forward rather than step back.” – Don McCullin.
“It was my conscious effort to continue my diatribe against America but in candy-colored heaven. It’s a hymn to America, it’s a hymn to money, it’s a hymn to commerce, it’s a hymn to the most beautiful thing in New York.” – Klein
“Everybody in New York thinks they’re special. They all thought they were entitled to be famous. They thought they deserved to be photographed.” – Klein
“The thing with Klein’s New York is you start looking through, and it’s the accumulation of these pictures which really counts, so by the end of it, you haven’t just seen a collection of individual pictures, you’ve seen an accumulation, which creates this noise, which gives off energy, which reflects so accurately, what was going on in New York in the mid-1950s.” – Martin Parr
“1961 Moscow. May-day Red Square. Facing me, Lenin, Marx, Engels and a traditional parade. In the foreground, several comrades from the KGB.” – Klein
Klein would eventually go on to create three more books, Rome (1958), Moscow (1959-61), and Tokyo (1961), before turning to filmmaking between 1965 and 1980. He would return to photographing in the 1980s.
“I think with his set of city books, Klein developed a language that was, at the time, incredibly radical and unique. And this has spawned many imitators and it had a profound effect on the photography world.” – Martin Parr
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