William Klein’s Pictures Will Still Knock You Out

“I went to town and photographed non-stop, with literally, vengeance,” William Klein wrote of the book of New York City street photographs that he made in 1954 and 1955. He added, “I saw the book as a tabloid gone berserk, gross, over-inked, brutal layout, bullhorn headlines. This is what New York deserved and would get.” The book in question, “Life Is Good and Good for You in New York,” was sensational when it appeared, in 1956, in France–it was too unconventional for any American publisher to touch. Klein, who learned while he worked, loved amateurish accidents–lopsided compositions, heads lopped off, blur, grain, flare. “Life is Good” remains one of the most exciting and idiosyncratic photography books of the past century, and a rival to Robert Frank’s “The Americans” as the most influential.

The New York book made Klein’s reputation and is the centerpiece of “William Klein: YES,” a knockout retrospective that recently opened at the International Center of Photography. Klein went on to create three more now iconic city-focussed photo books, on Rome (1959), Moscow (1964), and Tokyo (1964), each of which is given its own gallery at I.C.P. (A later book, “Torino ’90,” is in a very different style and not included here.) But the opening room, devoted to Klein’s early work in painting and graphic design, might be the most eye-opening. A self-described wise-ass New Yorker, Klein was the grandson of a Delancey Street clothier. He grew up on Harlem’s southern edge and, under the influence of leftist teachers, was caught up early on in radical causes and the European avant-garde. After a stint as an Army radio operator in postwar Europe, he settled in Paris and began turning out canvases in a hard-edged abstract style that proved to be much more successful for his fellow American expats Jack Youngerman and Ellsworth Kelly.

The approach looked a lot more original, he realized, when applied to movable panels, and even more arresting as the product of darkroom manipulation. Photograms that Klein made in the nineteen-fifties for the cover of Domus, the Italian architecture-and-design magazine founded by Gio Ponti, still look avant-garde. Klein, who had already made paintings of stacked and fragmented letters, used this grounding in graphic design when he turned to bookmaking. From the beginning, the design of his photo volumes, especially their high-impact typographic covers, were nearly as important to their success as their contents.

Klein’s New York book wouldn’t have happened had he not been enticed back from Paris by the art director Alexander Liberman, who asked the artist to join his staff at Vogue, in 1954. Untrained as a photographer, Klein fell back on bravado and an innate sense of design, and in between shooting still-lifes for the magazine, he hit the streets and improvised. When it came time to collect his work into a book, he knew what he didn’t want to do. “Current photographic books put me to sleep—sacrosanct image on the right-hand page, a blank on the left. Inviolate, academic, boring,” he later wrote, adding, “So, I did everything to make it a new visual object. Double pages with twenty images jammed together in comic strip style, colliding facing pages, lead doubles, catalogue parodies, a Dada blast.”

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