There are six people in the photograph, but only one of them knows it. A young woman in a crowd on Fifth Avenue in 1955 finds a lens in her face. People are not yet afraid of being photographed by strangers in the street; still, she leans away to her right, averts her gaze from the man’s impertinent Leica. Or so it seems: it’s hard to tell where she’s looking – she’s quite a blur, and her big dark eyes are further shadowed by overprinting. Between face and coat and soft bouffant she occupies perhaps two-thirds of the picture, and she would rather not be there. What she doesn’t know is that she’s little more than a hole in the middle of the image; either side of her is a sea of faces, all gawping or grinning towards their left, and all perfectly in focus.

‘Big Face in Crowd’ by William Klein (1955).

‘Big Face in Crowd’ by William Klein (1955).

William Klein’s Big Face in Crowd is a ravishing instance of a compositional effect, not quite a trick, he used in street photographs of that period. It is partly a result of the wide-angle lenses which allowed him to get obnoxiously close to the action and still capture a good deal besides. And it’s the besides that is often the point: there may be a central or off-central subject in a Klein photograph, but at least half the drama unfolds at the edges, where nobody is quite sure if they are in the frame or why. Another example, taken on Mayday in Moscow in 1961, is better known because it appears in Barthes’s Camera Lucida. A crowd again and a face at the centre, just as distrustful as the girl in Manhattan. But this time she’s tiny: an old woman wrapped in thick wool, her eyes and mouth mere slits beneath the low line of her headscarf or shawl. Three men standing behind her can see they’re being photographed, and they look straight at the camera. But the younger men who flank her – one in hat and tie, the other in thick tweed and a comically big cap – clearly have no clue they are in the frame, so have both turned to look at the old woman: why photograph her?

At times the lateral stretch of a Klein photograph is so pronounced you suspect he could see three or four pictures at once, as if the city were a comic-book spread of discrete cells or frames. He didn’t simply photograph Parisian lovers on the street in 1968, but catches two similar couples equally absorbed, and then at the extreme right a grumpy man in middle age who turns in our direction. In a park in Moscow in 1959, the three segments into which the image divides are separated by a tree trunk and a pole: there’s a manic-looking girl in a bikini on the left, a dozing old man in the middle, an older woman on the far right who has just woken up and noticed Klein with his camera. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ may still have been the ambition of fleet-footed street photographers, but Klein makes him look like an artist of the 19th century: still hooked on picturesque urban anecdote despite the city’s acceleration into cinematic blur.

Composition was just the half of it: it was the texture of Klein’s photographs that made them hard to look at for the magazine editors and publishers he tried to impress on his return to his native New York in 1955. He was working for Vogue, having spent the best part of a decade in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne, trained as a painter under Léger, and switched to photography when his abstract photograms were published by the design magazine Domus. In New York, however, nobody wanted his dark and frantic portraits of the city, their motion-blurred or out-of-focus subjects, the vicious cropping that exploded small portions of his negatives into grainy prominence. (Worse, he preferred to overprint the images so that they threatened to become slabs of unreadable black.) Klein fled back to Paris, where he showed his photographs to Chris Marker, then a young editor at Seuil. Marker, it’s said, threatened to quit if the house didn’t publish Klein, and his first book duly appeared in 1956, entitled Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels.

The Tate Modern show that Klein shares with the Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (until 20 January 2013) includes some copies of the book, which makes startling use of full-bleed, double-page spreads and brutal juxtaposition. ‘Only the sequencing counts … like in a movie,’ Klein said of it. The exhibition too has a liking for energetic montage: it blows up early photographs to movie-screen scale and mounts them directly on the walls. The show is surprisingly short on Klein’s fashion work, where he was the graphic equal of Irving Penn and a far stranger photographer than, say, David Bailey or Richard Avedon. But then he has long been ambivalent about his fashion photography; already in 1966 he had skewered that milieu with Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, the first in a series of satirical films that would take up much of his next decade. Klein effectively abandoned photography for filmmaking in the late 1960s. He contributed to the anti-war Loin du Vietnam (1967), filmed the streets of Paris in May 1968 and made documentaries about Eldridge Cleaver and Muhammad Ali. He funded his films with countless TV commercials, and eventually returned to photography (and fashion) in the 1980s. There are several of his later splashy paintings over contact sheets from the 1950s and 1960s at the Tate. They’re interesting chiefly as records of his patience in the face of city flux: ‘I have almost got a photograph. A face appears on the left, and there it is: a photograph.’

At the time Klein was leaving photography behind, his New York book was among the sources ransacked by Moriyama for his extraordinarily dark and friable-looking photographs of Tokyo and environs. Moriyama’s first book, Japan: A Photo Theatre, appeared in 1968, when he was involved with the avant-garde Provoke group and its short-lived journal. Moriyama’s American reference points were for the most part predictable: On the Road inspired him to start photographing from a moving car on the outskirts of the city, and there are blatant nods to Warhol in his images of goods stacked on supermarket shelves and rephotographed details from Tokyo road-safety posters. The latter are printed so darkly that roadside deaths and disasters almost sink into pure monochrome. But it was Klein who made this sort of graphic liberty possible for Moriyama and his contemporaries. Here again are blurred faces, extreme high contrast and ‘crude’ printing, full-bleed spreads that will not let photographs sit discreetly on the page: instead, they abut each other and the world with some violence.

‘Documentary 78’ (1986) by Daido Moriyama.

‘Documentary 78’ (1986) by Daido Moriyama.

Moriyama gestured at his own renunciation of the medium when he published Farewell Photography in 1972. Where Klein simply moved on to filmmaking, it seemed that Moriyama wished to kill photography by taking more photographs. He took the Kleinian taste for blur and overprinting to new extremes: he photographed streaks of hotel-room TVs, unparsable reflections in train windows, pictures from magazines and newspapers whose halftone dots expanded into constellate fuzz. He could go no further, and his later work is notably more austere and aestheticised, almost classically interested in glistening surfaces and isolated objects. But for a time Moriyama and his Provoke contemporaries had pushed straight black and white photography as far as it would go in the direction Klein had pointed it.

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