Breaking the rules and taboos of conventional photography
The photographer who captured New York’s everyday life

text: Taka Kawachi


In February 2018, thirty years after his last visit, 89-year-old photography legend William Klein visited Japan once again on occasion of the exhibition “NEW PLANET PHOTO CITY – William Klein and Photographers Living in the 22nd Century” held by Tokyo-based art space 21_21 Design Sight. Klein, sitting in his wheelchair, gave a press conference in front of his work “Atom Bomb Sky, New York 1955”, a dramatic image of the Manhattan sky. As Klein’s face lit up with firing camera flashes, his face showed no reaction. He simply took photo after photo of the camera-wielding crowd.

William Klein was born in New York and moved to Paris at a young age. In the 1950s, driven by both affection and disdain for the city, he decided to create a photobook about New York — his “New York”, easily one of the finest street photography books ever made. Klein, who was experienced in painting and design but had little knowledge of camera gear or photography techniques, wandered the streets of New York concentrating only on taking photographs. He selected and edited the amassed images, took care of layout and design himself, and finally published his “New York”.

The book’s official title is “Life is Good & Good for You in New York”. Yet in contrast to the rather positive-sounding name, the city did not enjoy a great reputation at the time of the initial publication (if anything, New York suffered a negative image). Accordingly, the New York in Klein’s photos has nothing in common with the neat looking streets one might see in movies or magazines. His photographs are raw and almost mean-spirited, emphasized through wild themes, blurry focus, extreme contrasts and Dutch angles.

William Klein, born in New York in 1928. Klein began to work as a fashion photographer aged 27 and published his first photobook “New York” in 1956. His rough, out-of-focus and blurry photography style has become an inspiration for many photographers.
(21_21 DESIGN SIGHT exhibition “NEW PLANET PHOTO CITY”. Photo by Masaya Yoshimura)

In Klein’s own words: “The New York book was a visual diary and it was also kind of personal newspaper. I wanted it to look like the news. I didn’t relate to European photography. It was too poetic and anecdotal for me…. The kinetic quality of New York, the kids, dirt, madness — I tried to find a photographic style that would come close to it. So I would be grainy and contrasted and black. I’d crop, blur, play with the negatives. I didn’t see clean technique being right for New York. I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter like the New York Daily News.”

Press conference, “NEW PLANET PHOTO CITY” exhibition

When Klein photographed people in the streets, he had three principles on his mind: Trance, Witness, and Revel. In short, it meant he focused, immersed himself fully in the world before his eyes, and just photographed. Shooting in this almost instinctual manner, Klein was in search of his own idiosyncratic expressive style. Even today, his authentic, lifelike photographs are full of surprising ideas and refreshing to look at. The importance of “New York” and its influence on photographers world-wide are still as palpable as ever.

William Klein exhibition at 21_21 Design Sight

From February 21 until June 10, 2018, Tokyo-based art venue 21_21 Design Sight is holding the exhibition “NEW PLANET PHOTO CITY – William Klein and Photographers Living in the 22nd Century”.
In addition to Klein’s own city vision, the exhibition introduces several Asian and Japanese photographers who examine the city of the 21st century and its inhabitants from a fresh perspective. The twelve artists featured in the exhibition are William Klein, Naoki Ishikawa + Yasuhiro Morinaga, Kunihiko Katsumata, Shen Chao-Liang, Ayano Sudo, TAKCOM, Yuki Tawada, Sohei Nishino, Mina Park, Satoshi Fujiwara, Takahiro Mizushima and Sachigusa Yasuda.

“NEW PLANET PHOTO CITY – William Klein and Photographers Living in the 22nd Century”

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts) ”.His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).

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