Klein is the grandfather of street photography. Long before everybody had a camera and shots of everyday life became commonplace, Klein captured real people, some posed, some candid. His black and white images don’t just tell a story they often look like stills from a movie.
If you get the opportunity to watch the BBC Alan Yentob documentary about Klein, it is excellent. It is biographical rather than technical but TV tends to go for the people angle, the human interest. And, after all, that’s what makes Klein’s images so compelling in the first place.
He works with black and white film. He just pokes a camera out of the cab window and shoots, it seems. But experts always make the most profound of techniques appear simple.
The most fascinating part of the exhibition for me was the way Klein takes us into the process that occurs after the shot has been taken. The editorial decision is as important as the moment the shutter is released. Klein drafts like everybody else. He chooses which images make it and which don’t. He has made that editorial decision making process obvious by painting on to the images. It is perhaps part of the power we assign to photography that, to a great extent, we seem to forget about the editorial choices and rely on the pictures we see as the truth.
Take this photo of boys aiming a gun. Snarling, feral children with a handgun. Tells a convincing story, doesn’t it?
However, compare it with one taken perhaps seconds afterwards where their posing has made the boys self conscious; streetwise still but nearly smiling. What a completely different story. And there’s a third story, the one that happens for us as we look between the two images and realise we interpret. In the Tate exhibition, the images, presented together and painted over with that acidic yellow acrylic paint in the way a magazine editor might mark photos for publication, reveal some of the story we tell ourselves and make us question assumptions and preconceptions.
Students can use similar techniques when writing sophisticated compositions, making the audience aware of the storyteller’s craft. Don’t stick with the straightforward timeline. Avoid linear narratives that typically use the words ‘then’ and ‘suddenly’. Use flashbacks and flashforwards. Distance the reader from the story by referring to the nature of stories. Have characters in your stories tell stories. As the narrator, tell your story in different ways either from different characters’ points of view or simply by questioning what has already been said.
In a written piece for exams or coursework, students aiming for the highest grades don’t have to accomplish wonderful works of art, just demonstrate an ability to see a little beyond the ordinary.
The great thing about Klein is that he sees the ordinary and makes it wonderful.