You can tell a lot about William Klein just from the title of his 1956 book of photos. “Life is Good and Good for You in New York” is like no other title. And the book really is like no other book. His title of course is ironic. He’s mocking advertising jargon. But a great mocker like Klein always has something else up his sleeve. In spite of the biting irony, you can’t help but feel — after seeing the photos in the book — that Klein believes his title. He does think life is good and good in New York. But it’s a strange, bitter, conflicted belief.
Looking at his photos can almost leave you exhausted. So much comes at you, some of it good, a lot of it bad. By which I mean Klein is a paradox. He clearly loves and hates his native city. Loves and hates a lot of things in it. I’ve looked at his photos, again and again, over these past few months. And I think that as a street photographer, I’ve learned some important things from that complicated book.
In a way, the cover photo says it all. Tells you, I think, about the paradox Klein is. The cover shot is a close up of four New York faces. The dominant face is of a pasty-looking woman, smiling winningly. Just above her, also dominant, is a sober looking cop. He looks off to the right. She looks off to the left. The other two faces are mere backdrop. This shot is so overexposed the woman’s face looks like all the blood’s been drained out of it. Yet, she’s smiling in that winning way. All in all, the overexposed white, the flat grays and black, give you a kind of depressed feeling. You could be looking at a picture of the damned. But if they’re that, Klein has a sense of humor about it. And how damned can they be if the woman is smiling so convincingly?
This really is what the whole book is like: grim, deadpan faces interspersed with spirited, smiling faces; deadpan shots of advertising signs and graffiti but signs and graffiti that look alive. Flat looking city streets but at least one lyrical shot of Manhattan at night. The book as a whole — the photos collectively — has an energy. It’s the energy of the city itself. But it’s also the energy of spirited individuals that Klein allows himself to admire. Folks whose vitality hasn’t been stamped out by an often dreary, urban world.
I think the great achievement of this odd book is that complex attitude. Photos that almost at once convey love and hate, disillusionment and admiration, a city dead to the spirit and obstinately alive as well. You can almost stand back at times and wonder how Klein pulls it off. And you may feel contradictory things yourself. I’ve loved and hated the book, been exasperated and inspired by it. Mostly I’ve tried to figure out what I can learn from it and apply to my own street photography.
Klein had an authentic, if complicated, vision of New York. It agitated and depressed and inspired him, it seems. In his complicated agitation and excitement, he made use of unorthodox techniques: he deliberately overexposed, cropped a lot, blurred images. He packed more images on a page than you would think possible. And yet his technique was always dictated by that complicated, authentic vision.
The take away lesson for a street photographer today, I think, is not to go out, over-expose, over-crop, make sure you use blurred focus. The take away lesson, it seems to me, is to be wholly involved — wholly interested — in what you shoot. If you’re wholly interested in what you shoot I think you somehow create your own technique. Which may express your complicated attitude toward your subject. That, in any case, is how it seems to me after looking at Klein’s photos. I’m an ex-New Yorker. I spent most of my adulthood – all of my boyhood years – in that difficult, bitter, amazing city. And Klein’s book gives you the city like no other book does. And it makes me want to go out and shoot. Find my own way of conveying what I see and feel. Even if what I see and feel is full of conflict. That, I think, is the gift of Klein.