Social Media

Book Review: ABC

ABC. Photographs by William Klein.
Published by Abrams, 2013.
Reviewed by John Mathews

Photographs by William Klein.
Abrams, 2013. Hardbound. 184 pp., 196 color illustrations, 11-1/2x8".

Glancing through the pages of ABC one can quickly get a sense of Klein's frenetic and inquisitive eye. These qualities are particularly evident within a series of lively New York street portraits from 1956, which depict an assortment of gregarious characters. The sense of dialogue between the Kline and his subjects is palpable. Whether by accident or provocation he seems highly proficient at getting people to perform for him and on rare occasions they also try to hide. In one photo a smiling face is pressed expectantly against the glass of a shop window and in another, a hand blocks a face in a gesture of anonymity. Regardless of the reaction Klein keeps moving on down the street, ready to focus in on his next target.

Klein seems instinctively aware of the dynamics of city spaces and he uses them to great effect in order emphasise the mood of people. An image taken from his 1964 Moscow series shows a group of youths playing ping-pong in a courtyard, using a dinner table and planks of wood as bats. An otherwise playful scene is dominated by an austere apartment building that completely engulfs the youths. A small tree with a large iron railing around it mirrors this feeling of entrapment. From one perspective the image could be an allegory for hope and endurance in the face of poverty and from another it could symbolise the way in which these youths are trapped by their circumstances. Many of Klein's photographs contain such ambiguous meanings, which stick in the mind.

ABC, by William Klein. Published by Abrams, 2013.

Klein's fashion work is also represented within the book and many of these images have an uncanny undertone, which slightly undermines their glamorous nature. A French fashion spread from the 1960s shows two models posing in a waxworks museum. Within this scene it is difficult to distinguish the real people from the wax mannequins. Ironically one pays more attention to the models than if they were photographed alone. Another fashion shot shows a model surrounded by a crowd who have all had their faces cut out. Is Kline making a wry comment on consumer culture or is he creating some type of surrealist joke?

ABC, by William Klein. Published by Abrams, 2013.

In the 1990s Klein began to reinvent some of his previous photographic works by making large scale prints of black and white contact sheets and then painting over them using bright primary colours. Kline seems intrigued by the before and after images of the contact sheets and uses them as a way of exploring and demystify the notion of the perfect image. These highly graphic works, which bridge photography and painting, emphasise Kline's desire to experiment with every aspect of the photographic process.

ABC, by William Klein. Published by Abrams, 2013.

In another photomontage image entitled Mickey takes over Times Square, New York, 1998 a giant hand painted Mickey Mouse towers over a bustling street scene that is entirely composed of advertisements for burgers, whisky and peep shows. Mickey seems poised and ready to unleash his glee upon the city, in a weird parable of excess. Even though Klein is a participant within the world of advertising, one gets the impression that he isn't convinced by what it has to offer. Kline seems equally fascinated and repulsed by consumer culture. He doesn't so much pass judgement on the media world but offers an alternative viewpoint.

ABC, by William Klein. Published by Abrams, 2013.

Klein personally supervised the design of ABC and he has approached it in a spirit of playfulness. The book avoids being overly analytical and relies on images to tell the story of Klein's rich and eclectic career. The collection also shows us Kline's unique ability to experiment with and fuse together his many interests in photography, painting, graphic design and film. It is an entertaining cross section of work that successfully captures Klein's gusto, mischievousness and natural sense of curiosity.—JOHN MATHEWS

purchase book

JOHN MATHEWS is an artist, archivist and curator based between Nova Scotia, Canada and Northern Ireland.