Eric Kim: 10 Lessons William Klein has taught me about Street Photography
William Klein is one of my favorite street photographers of all time. I think one of the things that I love most about him is his "I don't give a f**k" attitude about the way he approached street photography how he did things his own way. He rebelled against many of the contemporary styles of photography during his time, especially that of Henri Cartier-Bresson and other 'classic' street photographers. In this article, I will share what I have personally learned about street photography through his work. Also in the spirit of William Klein, I will use obscenities when illustrating some points. After all, I think that is what Klein would like.
|Gun 1, New York, 1955 - photo: William Klein|
1. Get close and personal
Klein experimented with lots of different focal lengths during his career - but he is most well-known for his up-and-close and personal work with a wide-angle lens. This is what Klein said about his approach in his book: 'William Klein: Close Up':
'I photograph what i see in front of me, I move in close to see better and use a wide-angle lens to get as much as possible in the frame.'
|New York, 1955 - photo: William Klein|
When I look at the work of William Klein, I feel that I am really there. I feel like an intimate participant of the scene, rather than a voyeur simply looking in. Not only that, but he is able to shove tons of content into the frame, so there are multiple subjects and point of interest--not just one single subject. When Klein would photograph with a wide-angle lens, there would be considerable distortion in his images (which a lot of photographers don't like).
In an interview Klein shared why he preferred using a wide-angle lens (21mm-28mm) compared to something more standard like Henri Cartier-Bresson's 50mm:
'Does it really bother you? In any case, I'm not deliberately distorting. I need the wide-angle to get a lot of things into the frame. Take the picture of may day in Moscow. With a 50mm jammed between the parade and the side-walk, I would have been able to frame only the old lady in the middle. But what I wanted was the whole group, the tartars, the Armenians, Ukranians, Russians, an image of empire surrounding one old lady on a sidewalk as a parade goes by.'
'In photography, I was interested in letting the machine loose, in taking risks, exploring the possibilities of film, paper, printing in different ways, playing with exposures, with composition and accidents. Its all part of what an image can be, which is anything. Good pictures, bad pictures - why not?'
If you want to create a sense of intimacy in your photographs, don't photograph half a block away with a telephoto lens. Rather, strap on a wide-angle lens (a 35mm or wider) and get up-and-close to the action. Become an active participant of the scene. Interact with the people, hear their conversations, and as a rule of thumb be close enough to see the colors of their eyes. Also instead of just focusing on single-subjects, try to add more content into your frame. When using a wide-angle lens, I noticed that Klein did this best when photographing in a landscape format. This way he was able to add more subjects to his frame.
2. Keep a 'photographic diary'
|Atom Bomb Sky, New York, 1955 - photo: William Klein|
When Klein first started to photograph the streets of NYC in 1954, he did it with a care-free attitude. He wasn't trained in photography at the time, but he simply captured what he found interesting. In 'Close Up' (1990), Klein Expands:
Before my book on New York, I was a painter. When I came back to the city in 1954, after six years away, I decided to keep a photographic diary of my return. These were practically my first â€˜realâ€™ photographs. I had neither training nor complexes. By necessity and by choice, I decided that anything would have to go'.
Sometimes when we shoot on the streets, we feel that we have to always work on a project or take our photography very seriously. Although I do believe in working on projects and focusing when shooting on the streets, it is also important not to take things so seriously all the time.
By keeping a photographic diary you can capture interesting moments of your everyday life through people on the streets. If you are feeling in a sad and depressive mood, you are probably more likely to spot that in the streets. So by photographing how you feel, you can create authentic and personal images. Another takeaway point we can learn from Klein is the importance of the amateur approach.
Being called an 'amateur' is often a negative label. However the word 'amateur' originated from the idea that someone did something for the love of it, rather than for the money, fame, or prestige. So regardless of how much photographic training you have, just go out there and shoot. Don't worry so much about the theory of photography, just shoot because you love it.
3. Go against the grain
When Klein was shooting in the streets in the 50's, there were certain "taboos" when it came to photography. This included Grain, high-contrast, blur, decomposition, and accidents. However Klein used these techniques to his advantage. His photographs weren't clean, sterile, and clinical. Rather, they were full of energy, vibrance, and a sense of rebellion that went against the grain.
|Dance in Brooklyn, New York, 1955 - photo: William Klein|
Of course now looking back we look at Klein as a visionary and a genius in his work and approach. However when he was photographing at the time, people either hated his work or didn't understand how unique or original it was. When talking about his pivotal New York Book, 'Life is Good & Good For You in New York' (1956), Klein had this to say in 1990:
'The resulting book went against the grain thirty years ago. My approach was not fashionable then nor is it it today.'
In a 1981 interview with Klein (in his Aperture Monograph book), he shares how much American publishers abhorred his work:
'In the 1950s I couldn't find an American publisher for my New York pictures [...] Everyone I showed them to said, 'Ech! This isn't New York, too ugly , too seedy and too one-sided. They said 'This isn't photography, this is sh*t!'
I think what we can learn from Klein is the fact that he gave the middle-finger to everyone else when it came to his photography. He did things his way, and certainly went against the grain. He knew that his photography wasn't fashionable, but he didn't give a flying sh*t. Even when he talked about his work in his book: 'William Klein: Close Up' in 1990, he still mentioned how his work still wasn't fashionable.
4. Pursue ethnography
Wikipedia defines ethnography as follows:
Ethnography (from Greek ethnos = folk/people and grapho = to write) is a qualitative research design aimed at exploring cultural phenomena. The resulting field study or a case report reflects the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of a cultural group. An ethnography is a means to represent graphically and in writing, the culture of a people.
|Danseurs dans la rue des petits bureaux, Tokyo, 1961 - photo: William Klein|
Why do I bring up ethnography in terms of Klein's street photography? Well, he mentioned it himself when describing the content he pursued for his 'Life is Good & Good For You in New York' book:
'As for content: pseudo-ethnography, parody, dada. I was a make-believe ethnograph in search of the straightest of straight documents, the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography. I would document the proud New Yorkers in the same way a museum expedition would document Kikuyus'.
Although Klein refers to his work as more of a 'pseudo-ethnography' (or wanna-be ethnography) his work certainly explores the culture of people in New York. What did Klein find in the people of New York in the 50's? Well in his own words he found 'black humor, absurd, panic.'
His pictures certainly aren't romantic photographs like those of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Rather, his New York photographs are quite grimy, rugged, and raw. They show a side of New York that many Americans found repugnant. He photographed in the rough parts of town and documented the manipulation of the media, as well as the grittiness of the streets.
When you are pursuing your own photography, don't try to just make interesting images. Rather, try to pursue the 'sense of place' of wherever you are photographing. Through ethnography, try to pursue to 'represent graphically and in writing, the culture of a people.'
5. Be purposeful when you are out shooting
|Rome, 1956 - photo: William Klein|
When Klein first started photographing the streets of New York in the 50's, he did so with a 'photographic diary' approach. At the time, he didn't think of creating a book on New York or anything of the sort. However one thing that I found fascinating is how he mentions that he doesn't believe in the idea of 'carrying a camera everywhere you go.' Rather, he mentions how he photographs with high-intensity when working on a project or a book:
'I don't roam around with a camera and never did. I took pictures in spurts, for my books, for some assignments or on special occasions. Like people who take out their cameras for Christmas and birthdays. Each time, like them, probably, I feel it's the first time and as if I would have to relearn the moves. Luckily, it comes pretty fast, like riding a bike.' - William Klein (1990)
Interesting enough, Klein didn't actually spend a lot of time of his life shooting on the streets. However because he focused intensely, he was able to finish his books and projects quickly and efficiently. John Heilpern wrote this about William Klein in an Aperture Monograph of him (1981):
'Just as Klein himself lives in self-inflicted limbo in paris, he appears to have made of his career what amounted to a willfull noncareer. Everything he worked at over the years, from his paintings to his later political films, he abandoned eventually to start afresh.'
'His four books of photography, on which so much of his reputation is based, took him an average of 3 months each to photograph and several more months to edit and design. (Klein did the design, typography, covers, and texts for all his books.) But little more than four years of his life have actually been spent seriously taking photographs.'
I still think it is a good practice to carry a camera with you everywhere you go, as many 'decisive moments' tend to happen at the most random of times. I always carry a compact camera with me, and have found some of my best photographs in the least likely places (supermarket, waiting in line at airport, while running errands). However I still think there is great value in Klein's methodology in working in short and focused bursts.
It still blows me away how Klein was able to photograph most of his photography books of New York, Rome, Paris, and Moscow on an average of only 3 months. Most photographers take years or even decades to finish photographing for their books. I suspect it is because when Klein was shooting on the streets, he didn't dick around. He hit the streets with passion and fervor, and shot in the streets without hesitation.
Through his purposeful shooting on the streets he was able to create powerful and memorable photographs. So even if you don't have a lot of free time to shoot on the streets, don't fret. If we can learn anything from Klein, it is that it is quality, not the quantity of time we use when shooting in the streets that matters.
6. Have fun
The reason I like to shoot street photography is because it is fun. When I am out on the streets, I feel like a kid again. Street photography gives me the opportunity to explore, interact with people, and lose myself in the moment while photographing. What was the main impetus which drove Klein to first start taking photographs? Klein mentions the sense of fun and enjoyment that he got shooting on the streets:
'I was taking pictures for myself. I felt free. Photography was a lot of fun for me. First of all I'd get really excited waiting to see if the pictures would come out the next day. I didn't really know anything about photography, but I loved the camera'.
|Boy and Girl, New York, 1955 - photo: William Klein|
Klein also shares the excitement that he got when experimenting shooting on the streets:
'a photographer can love his camera and what it can do in the same way that a painter can love his brush and paints, love the feel of it and the excitement.'
'I would look at my contact sheets and my heart would be beating, you know. To see if I'd caught what I wanted. Sometimes, I'd take shots without aiming, just to see what happened. I'd rush into crowds 'bang! Bang!' I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance, other times I'd frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.'
'Choosing location, maybe a symbolic spot, the light and perspective, and suddenly you know the moment is yours. It must be close to what a fighter feels after jabbing and circling and getting hit, when suddenly there's an opening, and bang! Right on the button. It's a fantastic feeling.'
Don't forget to have fun when shooting on the streets. If there is ever a point in when shooting in the streets is no longer fun for you, you should probably stop and pursue some other type of approach. For example, for about 5-6 years I enjoyed shooting street photography in black and white. However after a while, it didn't interest me as much and didn't feel as challenging. However now that I have switched to shooting my street photography exclusively in color film, it has opened up new opportunities and challenges which I find fun.
Let your own interests lead your street photography. Don't really care what types of projects other photographers may be pursuing. After all, what is interesting (and fun) to them may not be interesting or fun to you.
7. Interact with your subjects
Street photography is generally understood as capturing candid moments of everyday life. However the paradox is that some of the most memorable street photographs taken in history were either posed or as a result of the interaction with the photographer. Think of Klein's famous 'kid with gun' photograph. Although the moment looks raw and candid, the photograph was actually a result of what Klein said to the kid. When Klein saw the kid with the gun, he told him: 'Look tough.' The kid then turned toward Klein, and pointed his gun straight at him - giving an incredibly brutal look.
If you look at Klein's contact sheet of the shot, you can see the next photograph the kid is smiling and posing with one of his friends. So how did Klein interact with his subjects when shooting on the streets? He explains how his subjects were aware they were being photographed, but not always 100% sure:
'Yes, but they didn't know I might be photographing a hundred other things going on behind them - someone lurking in the background, a shadow, a reflection, posters, traffic, junk. [I'd say], 'Hold it! Don't move! Hey, look this way! People would say, 'Whats this for? I'd say, 'The News.' 'The News! Wow! No sh*t!' I didn't much care.'
|Contact sheet, showing 'Gun 1' next to its subsequent frame, where the tough look has been replaced by a childish grin.
photo: William Klein
So doesn't this mean that Klein was simply manipulating his subjects? This is an interview question that was given to him, in which Klein responds:
'Not always. We're not completely brut, you know. I thought people could be provoked to pose or play a role in some situations. Why not? People have posed for portraits for centuries. When I was a kid in New York, if some tough kid caught you looking at him he'd say, 'Hey! What are you looking at?' If you said, 'I'm looking at you, he'd say, 'Oh, yeah!' if you said, 'I'm not looking at you', He'd say, 'why not?' - either way you were in trouble.'
Klein also shares his thoughts on how pointing a camera at someone you don't know can cause a tension, but how it is also generally accepted:
'In rough neighborhoods in New York [sometimes] it's better not to look. So if you point a camera at a stranger, you're almost breaking a tradition of not getting involved. Yet in a way, the camera erases involvement. Its accepted.'
Klein knows how photographing someone can cause someone to be provoked, but in the end, most people quite liked being photographed:
'In another way, it could be worse, a provocation and a threat. But generally, the people I photographed in New York seemed flattered. If I manipulated them sometimes, they didn't seem to think they should mind. Elsewhere, if I'd get people to clown around with me, like people in Italy to pose in hierarchical Roman way, I think that should be a valid picture. They're telling us something about themselves'.
|Gun 2, New York, 1955 - photo: William Klein|
But if a photographer provokes a person, what does it show except the result of the provocation? Klein thinks that people's reactions show less of the photographer, but more of the subject him/herself:
'Rather than catching people unaware, they show the face they want to show. Unposed, caught unaware, they might reveal ambiguous expressions, brows creased in vague internal contemplation, illegible, perhaps meaningless. Why not allow the subject the possibility of revealing his attitude toward life, his neighbor, even the photographer? Both ways are valid to me.'
Klein shares how sometimes people he provoked did things he couldn't have even imagined:
'In any case, very often people did things I couldn't have organized or imagined. A mother points a toy gun at her child's temple. Maybe I asked her to do it, I honestly forget. But lets say I did, out of some perverse inspiration. At the same time, though, she holds the child's hand in the most tender, touching way. The way a subject reacts to the camera can create a kind of happening. Why pretend the camera isn't there? Why not use it? Maybe people will reveal themselves as violent or tender, crazed or beautiful. But in some way, they reveal who they are. They'll have taken a self-portrait'.
I know a lot of street photographers who are vehemently opposed to the idea of interacting with your subjects. However I don't think it is a problem to interact with your subjects when shooting on the streets. I often interact with my subjects when I'm shooting street photography. I might sometimes first chat with them, get to know more about them, and ask to take a few photos of them. In other cases, I will ask them to pose for me a certain way I'd like to (asking someone to take a puff out of their cigarette, look straight into the lens, or not to smile).
Other times I have taken Klein's line of saying: 'look tough' to some people I meet on the street. The type of expression or look they give me is generally much more interesting than anything that I could have orchestrated myself. Don't feel that all the photographs you take have to be 100% candid. I often feel that the photographs in which people interact with their subjects are more interesting than candid moments. I think Klein would agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly.