Hands up!

“Broadway and 103 rd Street. New York” (1955)   William Klein

This picture is part of a collection which marked an important turning point in the history of photography in the second half of the 20th century. This collection was published in 1956 under the title “New York”. WILLIAM KLEIN, who at the time was living and working in Paris, returned to the city where he was born and with this collection about its street life turned the photographic genre on its head. Using a high-speed and therefore grainier film he introduced picture distortion and blurring without any hesitation. His compositions, complex and apparently without order, set them apart from existing canons. It resulted in an uncomfortable and crude photography that probably wanted to reflect the sensations that the city and the American way of life produced in him. A photography full of rage and a new way to express itself. The author himself commented with fine irony on his own technique, saying that it was “a crash course in what not to do in photography”. It’s rather curious that an artist trained in France, where there were so many good photographers at that time was so far from the perfectionism that characterised the French photographic style.

Klein’s new esthetic had a marked influence on the contemporary photographic canons. When today I see photographs by home grown talents such as Kim Manresa o Txema Salvans, I feel Klein’s spirit is present. Curiously, following the earthquake he created, Klein practically disappeared from the world of photography and dedicated himself to cinema. As we say “he threw the stone and ran away”. The truth is that he threw it very far.

Needless to say this image has an unusually direct impact, like a photographic punch in the face. A young man, in fact a boy,  is wandering the streets of the city. And, as is clear, he’s playing with a revolver, as you might expect in a society where fire arms constitute an essential reference point. He squares up to the photographer, arms the gun at him and shouts a threat at him: - Hands up or you’re a dead man! That doesn’t scare the photographer who points the camera and shoots without a second thought, as if it were a western showdown. No time to aim, no time to focus. Probably he was using a wide angle that gave him enough depth of field. Not enough of course to avoid the fist and gun ending up totally blurred. But that’s the point. To get a perfectly recognisable image but, thanks to its composition, a more aggressive and disturbing result. The boy’s face full of rage, violent even at play also reflects his own personality. His playmate, perhaps a younger brother, is watching him with total admiration; respect for an older peer, already able to fight with a gun in his hand. A real lesson about violence learned in childhood.