Don’t just take, make

In his brilliant contact sheet work, William Klein combined photographic imagery, paint and type and made something greater than the sum of its parts


The digital revolution has of course transformed photography. For all of us. But are we now awash with wonderful imagery? No. We’re awash with crap. We have either a zillion boring snaps infecting social media, or a sea of seductive, ridiculously photoshopped, pixel-perfect, high-dynamic-range mediocrity across advertising, magazines and culture in general.

More photos will be made this year than were taken on film in the entire history of analogue photography. So by the simple law of averages, there should be infinitely more brilliant images around. But that’s simply not the case. Why? Maybe digital photography is just so easy it makes us lazy. Tap a filter onto your auto white-balanced megapixels and hey presto … up pops a pseudo-professional yawn, every time. Guaranteed.

Perhaps we should focus the mind a bit more. Because that’s how we get to better. And with a lot of effort maybe even great and truly ground-breaking.

The painted enlarged contact sheet featured here is all of those things. It was created by William Klein, one of the leading imagemakers of the 20th century. He had the idea in 1985 whilst making a series of documentaries about some of his fellow photographers such as Helmut Newton, Don McCullin, Leonard Freed and Mario Giacomelli. The short films consist of a camera moving slowly over 35mm film contact sheets, coming to rest on selected images, with a commentary by the photographer. I recommend you search them out on YouTube, they’re great.

The photographers’ narrations discuss the subject matter, why they took that particular shot, how it was framed, and why they finally chose one picture over another. Fascinating stuff. As the camera tracks over the tiny black and white frames, we occasionally see red chinagraph lines indicating selected images. So you can see how Klein was inspired to produce these enlargements.

After some experimentation, he settled on thick enamel paint to create the marks directly onto silver gelatin photographic paper. Resulting in a stunning combination of photography and painting (Klein stared out as a painter, studying in Paris under Fernand Léger). I particularly love the intuitive, loose brush strokes, perfectly complementing the energy of Klein’s shooting style. Imagine the sheer power of these images blown up to six metres high in the retrospective exhibition he had at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2005.

This example even introduces a kind of vernacular pop art typography into the mix via images of 1950s New York billboards. It also raises the interesting point about how page layout/design can sometimes make good photography seem even better. If you want more proof, look at Willy Fleckhaus magazine spreads or the way Paul Arden often used images.

Let’s not forget history in the rush towards digital utopia. The brilliant artwork shown here could not be more analogue.

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