William Klein, Photography and the Age of Instagram

Popped into William Klein’s frenzied and frenetic photography (amongst other things) exhibition at the Tate Modern yesterday. His collection is an energetic scrapbook of a 1950s New York that we are all familiar with. His freshness back then has become the defining cliche of urban modernity; sexy, violent, fast, a jumble of high fashion and low culture, ironic adverts, immediacy. His photographs of dirty-faced children posing with toy guns is not shocking; it’s cool; like City of God, but fifty years back.

In spite of the brutal subject of some of his photographs, you never really want to change it; you want to celebrate it.

But there was something more familiar about the exhibition than just the urban New York that we have traveled to through movies and vintage photographs. The format itself was uncanny; image after image; back to back on flat white walls. Massive. Unmissable. Confrontational. You couldn’t focus on one photograph without it being framed by the next. You were propelled to nextness, like a film. They were photographs without frames; they were more like projections on a screen.

After about ten minutes of being bombarded by chic, bolshy images, my friend turned to me and said, “It’s like going through someone’s Instagram photos. It’s kind of boring.”

And, in many ways, the format, the posed but unposed, rough nature of the photographs, the ordinariness of the subject matter juxtaposed, occasionally, with a kind of glamour, all seemed very familiar to a way of looking that we have now applied to our cities and our own lives. One of his photographs was an advert juxtaposed against a tree. Sure, probably quite an unconventional subject matter for his time but commonplace ironic observation in ours.

It has always been a moot point as to whether photography counts as ‘art’ – from Roger Scruton’s dismissal that photography is just a crude form of indicating to Susan Sontag’s claim that photography can only make you feel but not understand. This problem has only been intensified by the fact photography is an almost everyday practice that isn’t saved for special occasions or posing in front of the Eiffel Tower; its evolved from that. The style of choice and pose has changed, especially with the onset of Instagram. What we takes pictures of has changed; no longer is it what we consider hackneyed or cliche, but it can be litter on a road side, an advert we find ironic, ugliness-as-an-expression of beauty. Photographs must be ironic and edgy. It is the complete manifestation of Susan Sontag’s: “Today everything exists to end in a photograph” – whether that ending place is facebook, instagram or flickr.

Klein worked as a fashion photographer and graphic designer; he towed the line between commercialism and art (although having a distinction between the two in the first place is problematic). As individuals who are bombarded with images-as-adverts each day, it’s almost impossible to look at the world without a kind of commercial aesthetic that photography that Klein’s work has inspired. Indeed, I think it’s precisely this blurring between commercial-as-artistic that encapsulates the aesthetic of instagram; a photograph has to look ‘artistic’ when it is perfectly tailored to look as if it’s come from a Jack Wills advert.

We have made the progression from being “tourists” in our own lives to being “adverts” and “celebrities”. We become our own paparazzi, but in the guise of aspiring artists. In fact, conventional “tourist” photography has become cheesy and ridiculous. How can we ever visit a photography exhibit again without regarding it as an extension of our own self-indulgence?

Klein’s photographs also have the (dis-)advantage of looking old. As Susan Sontag pointed out in “On Photography”, all old photographs end up looking beautiful, because they’re old – not because they’re of something beautiful.

This is a preference that Instagram has capitalised on. It takes images and make them instantly look old. Time is not sacred or irreversible; history is something we can re-create in a second, like all those old temples that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China but resurrected with incredible accuracy in the 21st Century. Instagram is a visual form of time travel.

Most of what I am saying can apply to many other photography exhibitions, although there’s something in particular about Klein’s everyday rushed sexiness that makes him particularly emblematic of the Instagram generation. The Daido Moriyama section of the exhibit was almost a continuation of Klein’s work, except it was a scrapbook of Tokyo, with more vaginas, and darker subject matter. We all have our photographic scrapbooks now of our surrounding towns and cities and even villages; not because we want to see differently or pioneer a different technique of photo-taking, but because we can now no longer see in any other way.

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