Into the Light

William Klein: Black + Light, Imprint/HackelBury Gallery, 2014

‘Into the Light’ is an essay written for William Klein’s BLACK+LIGHT, the long-awaited publication of his 1952 maquette of abstract photography.

Published by Imprint/HackelBury Gallery, 2014.


William Klein Black + Light 3 William Klein Black + Light 4Willaim Klein Black + Light 5

William Klein Black+Light 2

Into the Light    by David Campany

In the last year or two I have visited William Klein a number of times, ascending to his fifth floor apartment in Paris where he has lived for decades. Each time I arrive his housekeeper is there to usher me into the front room, with its balcony windows overlooking Le Jardin du Luxembourg. William is usually a little late to greet me so I gaze around the space. On his shelves are novels, classical and modern. There are big books on the history of art and a yard or two of his own inimitable publications. These are bracketed by his 1956 opus New York, and his latest book Brooklyn, 2014 – two very different attempts to capture in photographs the feeling for the city he left in 1946. In between are various editions of his later city books – Rome, Moscow, Tokyo, Torino; books on his numerous documentary and fiction films, and catalogues of his exhibitions held on every continent. Elsewhere there are paintings, family snapshots, souvenirs and a mantelpiece crowded with prestigious awards. On the floor are informal piles of yet more books, journals and boxes of photographic prints. Vintage copies of 1950s and 60s Vogue containing his groundbreaking fashion photography lay with the latest issues of Paris Match or Polka. All these things are the accumulated traces of more than sixty years of creative engagement with the world.

At some point I noticed there was one book that appeared to be in a different place each time I visited. It is a large but unassuming object, about the size of a vinyl LP. Spiral-bound with a scuffed plain white cover. Sometimes it was on the coffee table or propped against a wall, or on a shelf. But it was always visible, as if someone had just put it down. I picked it up.

‘William, what is this?’

That? Ancient history!’

The book had no title or text of any kind. Opening it up I was plunged straight in to a world of black and white abstraction: hard-edged, soft-edged, patterned, freeform, light, dark, gridded, swirling, airy, dancing, and all supremely assured. Fifty-six pages of visual play and possibility. I couldn’t date it at all. It was clear these designs were photograms, made with light acting directly on photographic paper, but their style didn’t seem to fit with the history of abstraction (photographic or painterly) nor with my sense of the history of photography books.

‘How ancient?’

‘1952. I think.’

Klein’s career is long and he has always moved extremely fast. So much happened for him in 1952 that to explain the genesis of this book and where it fits in to his development we have to go back a little further.

Klein arrived in Paris, via Germany, in 1948. With a head full of ideas about the 1920s heyday of the Parisian art scene he had ambitions to paint. He enrolled in a class run by Fernand Léger. Klein’s early paintings of groups of men and his still lifes were invariably graphically confident compositions in bold colours. He moved within a year or so towards hard-edged abstraction. Jack Youngerman and Ellsworth Kelly were among his friends and it seemed for a while that Klein might continue in that direction. But in conversation he often recalls how Léger encouraged his students to move beyond easel painting, to think about architecture and design, and to look for a creative life beyond the gallery. Klein was already familiar with the ideas of György Kepes and László Moholy-Nagy’s book Vision in Motion (1947). He was excited by that mix of art, technology, problem solving and free movement between media and between different social contexts.

At the start of 1952, Klein had what turned out to be a breakthrough exhibition. Significantly it was not in Paris (which was still somewhat trapped in the glorious myth of its pre-war years). The invitation came from the much more open-minded climate of Milan. At the Galleria del Milione, Klein installed his abstract paintings on the walls, columns and above the doorways. What happened next has become something of a founding myth for Klein’s passage into photography, but it bears repeating here.

Upon seeing Klein’s show Angelo Mangiarotti, a successful high-tech architect, commissioned Klein to produce a mural of rotating/sliding panels to divide a large room in a Milanese apartment. Klein painted irregular black stripes on white, reversing the tones for the flip sides. The panels could be interchanged as well as rotated, making around 2800 possible combinations. And then, while documenting the installation, Klein’s wife Jeanne spun the panels so that they blurred in the camera’s long exposure. He grasped straight away how the camera records and expresses, how it inevitably depicts yet abstracts at the same time. Hard-edged painting could turn into soft-edged photography. From this he realized that to explore abstraction further he didn’t need even to photograph anything. Light and photographic paper were all that were necessary.

He experimented with enormous energy, making hundreds upon hundreds of tests in the darkroom, learning as he went along, becoming familiar with all the ways light and his simple techniques could be manipulated to produce limitless results. Most retained the airiness and space of those images of the moving panels. But in the extensive history of abstract photography they remain highly unusual. Since the 1920s photograms have been typically whitish shapes on brooding dark backgrounds, made by placing discrete objects on the photographic paper under the light beam of the enlarger. They have also been rather static things, the objects arranged like a still life. Klein inverted all this, using sheets of opaque card into which he cut circles, triangles, squares and slots. Holding the card still on the sensitized paper would give solid dark shapes but sliding it around in a long exposure would leave traces in shades of grey on white – sometimes wispy, sometimes bold and graphic, depending on how fast the card was moved. A thin rectangular slot could produce designs resembling a hectic picket fence. But if it was pivoted slowly around its middle it produced pointed diamond shapes. Simple geometric forms appeared to dance in space, like an Alexander Calder mobile in a modern white room. Moreover, in tracing the improvised movements of Klein’s hands, each photogram was an unrepeatable capture of time and gesture. There were no real influences beyond the few examples he had seen in books. It was a matter of testing what might be possible, taking what he had gained from abstract painting and seeing where it might go in the darkroom.

Nobody else around him in Paris was doing this kind of work. Back in the Manhattan he had left behind, the Museum of Modern Art had presented the show Abstraction in Photography in 1951, with 150 works by 75 artists, selected by Edward Steichen. Not all the exhibits were photograms, as MoMA’s press release noted: “[T]here are numerous, purely scientific photographs with resulting incidental abstractions; there are images by photographers interpreting scientific subjects; and there are photographs of a purely inventive intent and light drawings without resource to camera. These various approaches sometimes overlap and impinge.” In some ways that exhibition was a response to the unstoppable rise of post-war abstract painting. The following year, art critic Harold Rosenberg made a memorable assessment of what he called Action Painting, that strand of abstraction in which the motion and physicality of the artist determined the painterly outcome directly:

‘At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.’[i]

We can think of Klein’s photograms in similar terms. Here we find no objects, actual or imagined. The light sensitive paper receives not a prior event recorded on a negative but the immediate event of exposure. We might even say that Klein was doing in his darkroom what Jackson Pollock was doing on his canvases.

1952 was also the year Henri Cartier-Bresson published Images à la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment), the book of his art of the instantaneous action photograph, in which gestures and geometries are frozen by the photographer’s quick reactions and speedy shutter. But Klein understood that photography’s relation to time could be more elastic. There is always duration. An abstract photogram could be built up over time.

Throughout his career Klein has been interested in scale and the spectator’s physical encounter with his work in context, whether it is on the printed page or the large gallery wall. However, his photograms were exquisite little things, rarely more than twenty centimetres across. Pollock was mark making with great arcs, flexing with his whole body. Klein was making delicate movements of often mere millimeters, although to the eye their dynamism seems much more expansive. For such condensed miniatures it is extraordinary how much kinetic exuberance they have. He did exhibit some at this small scale but their potential was limited. So he set about re-photographing them on negative film in order to be able to make blow-ups at any scale he desired. Some were printed the size of easel paintings, some as murals or room dividers. And it seemed a book was a logical extension of what could be done.

This was Klein’s first attempt at making a book. It is here that he began to play with scale, page layout, design and sequencing, developing the skills that would come to shape the string of influential publications for which he is justly celebrated. Indeed that first maquette has all the Klein hallmarks: the free flow of motifs, the unbounded graphic energy, the flattened all-over compositions, the refusal of white borders to contain the prints, and double-spreads crossing the gutter. More to the point, the imagery is not in the book, like plates in an album: the imagery is the book. Form and content are entirely unified so that the book becomes a work in itself, a coherent object of art and design. This was highly unusual for 1952. Not even the Bauhaus had produced such an integrated work on paper.[ii]

Klein glued his fibre-based enlargements back-to-back in sequence, holding them together with a simple metal spiral.[iii] The opening spread actually resembles a conventional white on black photogram, made by reversing the tones. We see this in later spreads too. He also makes clever switches where one side of the spread is white on black, while the other is black on white. From here the book takes off, unfolding page after page of free experimentation. Then a new trick is introduced, whereby Klein is partly covering sections of his photographic paper, much the way one moves a card across the paper in fixed increments to make a conventional test exposure under the enlarger. Later he uses thin strips in an architectural design resembling a series of Klein’s large abstract paintings made around the same time. There are also grid-like serial patterns that seem to anticipate the cybernetic computer graphics that would excite the art world of the late 1960s. Suddenly we encounter a spread that is solarised (the photographic paper exposed to daylight while still in the developing tray), darkening the tones while giving them light fringes. This is as subdued as the mood gets, the one sombre note in an otherwise joyous celebration of light and form. The sequence concludes with four of the strongest spreads, each modifying the design of the preceding page until the final spread flips the tones once more to bring us back to the feel of the book’s first pages. One of the qualities of spiral binding is that in principle it allows for a looped sequence with no fixed beginning or end. Klein’s maquette does have covers that give it a definitive start and finish but the looping structure is suggested nonetheless.

Soon after the maquette was completed it was put aside. There was no intention to publish it. Essentially it was a training exercise, a testing out of what could be done. Klein did use what he had learned to make striking covers for Domus, Gio Ponti’s architecture and design magazine. These were published between late 1952 and 1960. At a later date it seems Klein looked again at the maquette, appending some red arrows to signal a few design changes to improve a spread here and there. These changes have been incorporated in the present version. Klein tweaked the sequence a little but essentially it remains true to the original.

In early 1954 Klein presented enlarged abstract photographs alongside his rotating panels in the annual Le Salon des Réalités Nouvelles at Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The editor of American Vogue, Alexander Liberman, was in town for the fashion shows and saw the exhibition. He asked to meet Klein at Vogue’s Paris office. The young artist turned up with a range of things he’d been doing including his maquette and a series of semi-abstract photos of Dutch barns (stark white trim around black doors and windows). Vogue published the barn pictures, one of which Klein reversed into negative. Liberman invited Klein to work at Vogue and the rest, as they say, is history. Back in New York, Klein broke endless new ground as a fashion photographer, then as a maker of wildly inventive documentary photobooks (which he shot, edited and designed as well as writing his own wry and insightful captions) and as an adventurous filmmaker who now has some forty documentaries and feature films to his credit. But everywhere in Klein’s career we see ideas first touched upon in that maquette. For example, some of his studio fashion photography uses long exposures in which flashlights are moved around the models to give them stylish auras. For the cover of his book New York he cut the words into a sheet of card, held it up to the camera and shone lights through coloured gels from behind. But most of all Klein’s photographs and films fill the pictorial space with the same crazed dynamic vectors and kinetic energy we see in his early abstractions. The maquette was his blueprint of visual form, one that would allow for a limitless range of subject matter, be it posing models, informal group portraits or spontaneous street photographs.

In recent exhibitions Klein has given his abstract photography a larger presence. His turning panels and abstract letter paintings were included in his big Centre Pompidou show of 2005-06. Shows at HackelBury Gallery in London and Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York have mixed early paintings with darkroom experiments. The show at Tate Modern in 2012 included the Domus covers alongside a set of rotating panels and a suite of mural sized abstract blow-ups. All this was explored further in a major show at FOAM in Amsterdam in 2013-14. Recent publications such as William Klein: ABC (Tate), Paintings Etc (HackelBury/Howard Greenberg) and the Klein special issue of FOAM magazine also highlight the abstract work.

So the book of 1952 was the prehistory. I suspect Klein sees it this way himself. As he leafed its pages one afternoon I saw the sparky eighty-five year old smile affectionately at his younger artistic self. The past might be a foreign country but he’s still working with the graphic language he had so confidently defined for himself over sixty years ago. With today’s widespread revival of interest both in abstraction and the possibilities of the photographic darkroom it seems clear that Klein’s book makes at least as much sense today as it did when it was made.

As the years have passed I am sure there has been many a lucky guest at Klein’s Paris apartment who has turned the pages of that remarkable book. And from what I gather it has gained something of a secret reputation with visiting curators and critics. One mustn’t speculate of course, but it is difficult not to wonder how different things might have been if Klein had published it back in 1952, or 1962, or 1972 or even 1982. The landmarks of photographic abstraction are few and far between and this one would stand out in any era. ‘Ancient history’ has rarely felt so contemporary.

[i] Harold Rosenberg ‘The American Action Painters’ (1952) in The Tradition of the New (Horizon Press, New York 1959).

[ii] One forerunner I can think of is Ballet, the 1945 book of full-bleed blurry photos shot and designed by the graphic designer Alexey Brodovitch. It was printed in a small run of 500 copies and was never sold commercially.

[iii] The metal spiral was a simple binding technique but it had its own aesthetic and was used in several notable photography publications, including Brassaï’s Paris de Nuit (1936), and the Photographie annuals published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques in Paris.

An extract from this essay appears in HotShoe magazine, issue 191.


On press, October 17, 2014:


 A snapshot of William Klein’s original maquette:

IMG_7454 - Version 2


  • Copyright © 2024