William Klein’s “YES!” at the ICP. Yes!

“Red Light, Via Flaminia, Rome” (1956) gelatin silver print

I bet William Klein likes Yes!
The photographs are presented in grids on the wall with no glass, on tabletop video projections showing a hand turning the pages of a book and in slide shows on the wall, and the films are shown installation-style with the same film showing on three screens.
Well, I’d prefer smaller prints and seeing the films, especially Mohammed Ali, projected in a theater.

But no matter, Klein planned for his photographs to be shown in book form, and in slide shows; it’s part of his exuberant approach—to show the maximum number of works. And the benefit to us is to travel widely in his deeply humanist company.

Klein’s masterpiece is the series of books about New York, Moscow, Rome and Tokyo.
In the fashion photographs, he is a master of planned composition—I have put a couple of them at the end of this essay. But in his street photography he is a genius of improvisation.

What is particularly interesting about William Klein to a painter?
First of all his effortless endless pictorial invention. So many ideas and he hasn’t used them up—as so many contemporary artists do: they are available for other artists to use. Or maybe, first of all, I should say, his warm, witty, joyful embrace of individual human lives.

In Red Light… (above) a very cool dude lounges on his Vespa staring straight ahead. Four other people in the picture are looking at him. The implied lines of their gazes plus his make a strong horizontal line. The mixture of expressions on their faces: longing, comparing, jealousy…The woman in the couple on the left only has loving eyes for her man; the two of them are holding hands, he loves her, too—but he looks at the player.
Another man looks up the street, a Hitchcockian figure walks away, others buy or sell newspapers.

“Office Girls Outing” New York (1955)

The implied lines of the gaze crisscross Klein’s photographs playing both a compositional role and an emotional one—or is it instinctual?—we always want to see what other people are looking at. In Office…, three women look at the onlooker in three different ways, the fourth looks at the woman across from her, possibly admiringly. The snowman looks with great enthusiasm to the outside world. Our eyes are distracted, drawn to the foreground by the ads in the window and then peering into the depths of the diner.


Giotto “Lamentations” (1306)

Implied lines of the gaze in Giotto.

“Bikini” Moscow (1959)

In Bikini, the One Point Perspective/Golden Mean mashup is exhilarating. The laughing woman, old man sleeping, and older woman checking her out are in a direct line to infinity.

Is Klein waiting, like Bresson, for the Decisive Moment? *
I don’t think so. The photographs are a slow read, they break up into a succession of moments, glances, actions and interactions, and each one is there to be puzzled over.
In that complexity, Klein shows us a world of people who are vitally interested in and curious about each other. Neither the photographer nor the viewer steps back to capture or admire the ephemeral moment. Instead we are caught up in a whirl of emotions.

“Picnic” Rome (1956)

A friend of his described Klein in a procession standing in the middle of the street, obtrusive and unobtrusive at the same time; the people flowed around him as if he wasn’t there.
Picnic is an excellent example of being there and not there. The main event of the photograph is the taking of the picture. Six people are posing, fooling around, solemn, curious and startled; eight others are talking together in groups or doing something else. There are at least three pictures in Picnic: a portrait to the left, a group photo, and an intimate family scene.

“Hungry Aristocrats Prix de L’arc de Triomphe” Paris (2000)

This picture is a circular stop-motion Muybridge, humans eating pie.
And Klein said, “I find if I look back that half of everything I’ve done is chance.”

“Three Kids + Harmonica” Harlem, New York (1954)

A completely different use of perspective and range of focus. The eyes skitter across the top of the photograph holding it together and yet each child inhabits their own particular space.


“Hasidic Clothing Store” Brooklyn (2013)

On a side note, Hasidic Clothing… is one of the best of the color photographs in Yes! It has the same sense of choreography and playfulness, but the people seem unimportant individually, they don’t have a defined space and I don’t care about them in the same way.
I want to say a word about black and white vs color photography but I don’t seem to be able to grasp intellectually the difference in their affect—perhaps the answer is hidden too deeply in the brain for the brain to understand it.


(*) “The concept of the “Decisive Moment” implies that the photographer must be able to anticipate an important moment within the constant flow of life, and capture it in a fraction of a second.”

From The Decisive Moment, Explained by Federico Alegria

“Isabella+Dove+Mirrors” Paris Vogue (1963)


“Simone and Nina” Piazza di Spagna, Rome (1960)