Adam Harrison Levy | Essays

William Klein: Contacts

William Klein: Buicks, 2 tiered, New York, 1955, Howard Greenberg Gallery

William Klein made a rare appearance in New York recently to promote his latest book, Contacts. American by birth, he has lived most of his life in Paris. He is now 80. The Howard Greenberg gallery, which represents him in the United States, was hosting a book signing to mark the occasion. 

Word of the event had clearly gotten out. When I arrived, about an hour into the signing, the line was a long and serpentine affair, with bunches of admirers and collectors standing around, bags of books at their feet, talking animatedly with each other. Klein, who was dressed in a casual sweater, sat at a table with an array of pens in front of him. He was chatting with every patron as they slowly inched by. He was elaborately personalizing each book. I settled in for a long wait.

William Klein: Gun 1, New York, 1955, Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein is best known for his groundbreaking book New York, 1954-1955. This book is a stunning achievement — its urgent, messy and off-kilter images brought an edgy immediacy to what, in the 1950s, was a more complacent photographic tradition.

When shooting this work Klein relied on speed and instinct. “I had neither training nor complexes. By necessity and choice, I decided everything had to go. A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cock-eyed framing, accidents, whatever happens.” At the time, the book was rejected by U.S. publishers for what they considered its ugly and violent depiction of New York. It later gained renown after being published first in Europe (much like Robert Frank’s The Americans).

His latest book, Contacts, which I was awkwardly clutching to my chest (it’s a big book), is a kind of redux of his career. In it, Klein has gone back to his contact sheets and has re-versioned some of his original images by painting on them in bold, primary acrylics. It’s as if he’s taken a photographer’s standard working practice of marking up contact sheets with a chinagraph pencil and gone hog wild. The resulting images have strong graphic power and an insouciant air.

As the book signing line crept forward, I listened to the Klein-related murmurings in the crowd: hushed talk of rare first editions found at yard sales; the difficulty of getting hold of Klein’s later films; rumors about his bad boy behavior during fashion shoots for Vogue in the 1960s. We were like a group of religious penitents, whispering about our favorite patron saint, while anxiously waiting in line to rub his foot for good luck.

At their best, book signings are an invaluable way for readers to show their appreciation for the favorite authors and artists. They are an increasingly important way for authors (and their publishers) to sell books. But they also have a strange edge to them. Part tribute, part celebrity spotting (one queasy step away from hanging around the proverbial stage door), and part economic exchange (authors peddling books, readers peddling signed first editions on Ebay), they also speak to a yearning in our culture.

A book signing is a manifestation of an urge to recover something that we, as a culture, fear losing — namely the hand of the artist in the age of mechanical (and digital) reproduction. Now more than ever it seems that we want to get close to creativity: to hear the voice and see the skin and experience the physical presence of the person who made something that we deem to be meaningful. Is this because so much of our lives now is mediated through a screen? 

William Klein: Constructivist Dancers, Paris, 1989, Howard Greenberg Gallery

William Klein: Dance in Brooklyn, New York, 1955, Howard Greenberg Gallery

There is an irony to this. I was living in London when Don DeLillo, in 1997, published his magnum opus Underworld. I was an admirer of his writing and immediately went out and bought the hardcover edition. It was a handsome and hefty book. That summer I had the good fortune to take a train journey from Rome all the way up the spine of Italy and I devoured the book on the trip. It was my companion: I ate with it, slept with it, killed flies with it. By the end of the journey it was as worn and familiar to me as an old pair of shoes.

Back in London, I learned that DeLillo was making a rare public appearance. He was to give a reading and afterwards sign books. I brought along my copy of Underworld. As I approached the table I realized that it was bulging with Italian train schedules, emptied sugar packets dense with microscopic notes, larger bits of paper hastily torn into strips marking passages I had thought were significant, and one multi-folded origami-ish A4 page dense with Talmudic-like personal commentary. The book bulged like an overstuffed sandwich.

Embarrassed, I hastily shook the papers out and plopped it on the table. DeLillo looked up at me quizzically and fingered the bent cover and the broken spine. I suddenly felt horrible, sick with embarrassment; I had desecrated his intricate and powerful work of art. All the admiring words that I had carefully prepared and were hoping to say to him (leading of course to an invitation to drinks and then a literary mentorship) collapsed in a tangle. I could barely croak out a thank you after he scrawled his name on the title page.

Denuded of its extra fillings the book now sits like a cryogenic specimen in a glass-fronted bookcase far from the curious hands of a resident four year old. A book, which I had formerly been casual and intimate with has been transformed, as a result of the author’s signature, into a potential collector’s item. As a result, my attitude toward the book has changed. Curious to re-read some passages recently, I went out and bought a second-hand paperback edition rather than risk further damaging my signed first edition hardback. I have fetizished the object.

My turn had come to stand before Klein. He slid my copy of Contacts out of its slipcase, asked my name and with a silver marker pen handsomely inscribed it to me. This mechanically printed and standardized book was instantly transformed, via the artists’ hand, into a one of a kind, an original. The book will always bear testament to that moment and to the fiction of our close, William to Adam friendship. Theoretically, its value also instantly increased. This last point will help assuage the guilt I feel for buying such an expensive book (or at least that is what I plan to tell my wife when she sees the credit card bill). I don’t think I’ll be killing any flies with it. Although at an oversized 17 x13.5 inches it could make for a nice serving tray.

Adam Harrison Levy is a filmmaker and writer. He is currently working on the five part BBC documentary series The Genius of Design.

Posted in: Media, Photography

Comments [9]

"A book signing is a manifestation of an urge to recover something that we, as a culture, fear losing — namely the hand of the artist in the age of mechanical (and digital) reproduction." This is really true. We humans need to hold onto things non-mechanical and non-virtual. There is something about owning, holding, and browsing a real book, that can't be replicated online or in any other way. When you see a bookshelf full of books sitting quietly there, you just get a happy feeling, it isn't the same thing to see books in pixels. Through a book we get so much closer to a person (the author), than through any other media. And a signed copy is one step closer. The very fact that the author wrote in YOUR book is a real kick for book-lovers. A book is as much a work of art as a million dollar painting.

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Part of what's going on is that the market for "photo books" has become overheated. And as people discover that the books are less scarce than they had thought (dealers horde more new copies than you might guess) having a signed copy has become crucial to maintaining the price for second-hand copies. But even this has been made redundant now by the preference among serious (read wealthy) collectors for "association copies." Association copies come with some history or provenance. For example, if you have James Baldwin's copy of Avedon's Observations then you have a copy worth owning, etc. There's a lot of speculation going on in the photo book market right now. If you take your photo books to Swann or Christies today they may not be interested in them unless they are association copies. Christies for sure.

Ultimately what's important is that the book mean something to you and that your library represent a series of personal connections (rather than simply a conquest of collection).

The most interesting thing to me is that even as print is dying and the book business is on the verge of crisis ala newspapers and CD's, I notice young people fetishizing old books. The other day I was in Argosy books on 59th Street and a group of college age out of town kids came in and were just floored by the vintage look and feel of the books and spent a lot of time in there. I found this an encouraging sign that a generation raised to be digital will value the printed matter of the bygone era. So hold on to those books. The new generations will probably want the good ones even if Christies does not.
Terry Lenox

cinematography "to defeat the false powers of photography" (robert bresson)


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Youssef Sarhan

I love my books, but I don't treat them very well -- sometimes I think about how embarrassed I would be to bring a favourite book to a book signing and have the author see how I've mangled his or her work. But, if it were me sitting on the author's side of the table, I would hope that I would be able to recognize the wear-and-tear as a sign of love and many reads and re-reads.

This post, and the conversation that has followed in the comments, keeps reminding me of Luc Sante's WSJ article about his book collection: http://bit.ly/bSjuw


The noted photobook blogger Jeff Ladd went to the same signing event and posted about it at length. And the comment thread that follows is equally as fascinating:

Here is Ladd's post on his blog 5b4.

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