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Contact Sheets are Good and Good For You, William Klein

William Klein Contact Sheet

Contact Sheet © William Klein

A great YouTube video was highlighted on PetaPixel this morning. It is one of the most stimulating online photographic discoveries I’ve stumbled upon in months.  William Klein introduces a contact sheet, and we scroll over a handful of frames: the sequence, the progression. He describes more than the difference between compositions; he tells the story of that roll of film. The setting and characters are vividly brought to life (none more so than Little Italy,  ~3:45). Hearing this master talk about these photographs is highly intoxicating. At times his commentary seems to turn the photos into moving images.

There are some great phrases, some sublime insights, some wonderful quips:

  • “It’s the diary of a photographer. You see what he sees through the viewfinder: his hesitations, his hits, his misses, his choice.”
  • “…the same problem: how to frame, what to photograph.”
  • “All you have to do is frame, and click. You can do a hundred on that wall, no sweat. It’s there for the taking.”
  • “A few steps away…almost a photograph.”
  • “My Leica becomes a movie camera.”
  • “They advance, spastic and impenetrable, like Japanese should be.”
  • “There he was, posing for eternity…that’s the way it was in a New York bar in 1955…”
  • “I photograph a woman with a flowered sweater. Not a photograph, more of a reflex, a detail. A second later she’s still there, but everything’s changed. Everything has come together: the light, the staircase, the actors. And in the bargain, a pretty girl looking in the camera. This is a photograph.”
  • “Everyone’s here: wine growers, the baker’s wife, the butcher, the village idiot, the deputy mayor. I could do a mile like that”.
  • “There…that becomes a photograph.”

I love the succinct but meaty way he introduces the context for the proof sheets: “Harlem, New York, 1954”,  “Tokyo, 1961”, “1974, Paris”, “Down South, Near Atlanta in 1963”, “Moscow, 1959”, “Country fair in France, 1982”, “Early in the eighties, July in Coney Island”.

I only really know a handful of Klein’s photographs, mainly from the Errata Editions version of Life is Good and Good For You in New York, but this video is enough to have me crawling all over Amazon, eBay and AbeBooks for printed examples of some the images on show here.  I have a copy of the book ‘The Contact Sheet’, but I was a little disappointed with it. Very little emphasis was placed on the failures, or the shooting and decision processes.  Instead the text was split roughly fifty-fifty between a mini biography, and a broad description of the image. This video does a much better job of exploring and exploiting the contact sheet to the full.

Digital has largely robbed us – the viewer, the photo-consumer, the wannabe image-maker – of this rich photographic document. But maybe more importantly, it has robbed photographers of the chance to think about and revisit their own photographs in the way Klein so evidently benefits from.


  1. Mike wrote:

    Robin, a nice video shared. A striking feature of his work is how tense the people all appear. You referred to his comment on ‘a pretty girl (russian) looks into the camera, now it’s a photograph,’ but she’s not smiling, but wary. Perhaps slightly frightened. Maybe inquisitive – drawn to somehting she’s not sure of?

    A very different set of choices from so much of today’s photography that is more self aware and, apparently, more planned or controlled.

    Just a thought.

    Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 01:44 | Permalink
  2. Harrison Cronbi wrote:

    Thanks for the comment, Mike. Yes, it’s true she’s not smiling, but I think ‘wary’ is a more accurate reflection of how people look most of the time, whether there is a camera involved or not. Your observation about today’s photography being more self-aware is spot on. Even in the arena of street photography you have people making quite conscious pre-visualised choices.

    I have actually bought the full DVD set that this video came from. I’m looking forward to learning of the thoughts and processes of some other great photographers.

    Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 15:42 | Permalink

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