Klein Hearted

Reading like an haute couture distribution network William Klein’s current Tate Modern exhibition takes in episodic works from New York, Tokyo, Paris and Moscow.

From the locations alone it’s not surprising to learn that he spent several years photographing fashion for Vogue magazine and this exhibition shows some of that work with its beautiful highly stylised black and white images. The only reason for its inclusion though is to act as a counterpoint to the work he was most involved in. The work we’re really here to see.

Geographically disparate and glamorous-sounding the locations may be, but the life that is captured in some of the world’s most beautiful cities is lived on the opposite side of glamour.

Klein captures street and crowd scenes which act as diorama depictions of urban survival and big city dislocation. He captures the people who turn the cogs that allow the other side of the city its sophisticated urbanity, not the model-girl world of his day job.

Black Woman Profile in Crowd, New York, 1955 (2001)


There’s a certain kind of Klein-heartedness going on; he’s not apologising for the seediness, he’s not celebrating it either but he is luxuriating in it like a man nuzzling his face into soft fur. Is it a little bit sickening, a little bit funny, a little bit right and a little bit wrong?

So, in New York the black, Italian and hispanic kids whose mothers are working all day long run amok in the streets playing gunfights, a dwarf is hoisted aloft in a moment of impromptu street carnival and youthful faces in the crowd at a concert, full of naïve expectation, are submitted to the eternity of the lens in a millisecond.

In Tokyo there are macabre looking images of an experimental dance troupe – all male – whose bodies are emaciated and who move through the streets half-dressed as if in some demented zombie-dance. Images of prostitution, neon and wet pavements and again, and always, the faces of children.

Perhaps most moving is a film narrated by Klein which illustrates the photographic journey. He emphasises a truth about the art of photography, that even of the most prolific and well-known photographers, publishing images with an exposure time of perhaps a twelfth of a second each, will at the very most, produce a sum total of memorable work that amounts to just two minutes of time.

The time the shutter clicks on the automatic lens, just a split second, is the time it takes to catch the elusive transcendent image that might be selected for the cover of Time magazine, that might illustrate world news or perhaps play its part in an exhibition such as this one.

From a life’s work of what may amount to millions of images maybe two hundred will be deemed good enough to stand the test of time.

It’s hard to think that you could spend your life creating just two minutes’ worth of memorable material. But it’s probably two minutes more than most achieve.


William Klein Four Girls Easter Sunday (1955)


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