With his first books in the 50s and 60s, William Klein (New York, 1928), began a quest for the zero degree of photography. Rushing into crowds and shooting from the hip – bang! bang! – he was among the first to break the visual taboos of the medium by introducing blurry, out-of-focus shots taken with a wide-angle lens. More than his pictures, however, it was his innovative use of the photo book that made Klein the personification of a generation of streetwise photographers.
Klein, who started his career as a painter and even became the apprentice of the celebrated modern artist Fernand Leger, decided to settle in Paris but returned to New York for an assignment for Vogue. The result? A landmark in the history of street photography. Although his work did not immediately charm publishers in the United States, he won the Prix Nadar for Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels. Not bad for someone without any photographic training.
At the end of the 1950s, Klein became more involved in film and assisted Fellini on his latest project, The Nights of Cabiria. His job was to take photographs during casting sessions, but when financing issues delayed the project he decided to roam the streets of Rome. More accidental than working in New York, he nevertheless managed to capture his own take on the city. In the words of Fellini: Rome is a movie, and Klein did it. And so another self-designed book was born in 1959. In 1964, the third and fourth of Klein’s city books were published: Moscow and Tokyo. While loyal to his characteristic style of photographing, many of the images in Moscow subvert the Cold War idea of the Soviet Union as a drab, depressing place. At a time when the Cold War was in full swing, Klein managed to depict the city as an altogether more amiable place than it was portrayed in the Western media.
Klein also seemed instantly to understand the madness of the Japanese metropolis: in the same way that the 19th century painter Hokusai did, he created a sudden throng of images, faces, streets, crowds and attitudes. Intense, confusing, frenetic and discordant. Kleins photography simultaneously smashed the city in the face while embracing its citizens. They were dark, edgy and raw, but always humane images that still look fresh today. Hardcore photography that these days can also burn a serious hole in photo-book collectors wallets.