Klein vs. Cartier-Bresson: street photography

William Klein

Photo by William Klein

Right now is a very good time to be a street photographer, especially if you happen to live in England. With a William Klein & Daido Moriyama exhibition at the Tate Modern (10th October – 20th January, £12.70 with concessions) and Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour at Somerset House (8th November-27th January, free admission) we’re really quite spoilt. Plus, the day before yesterday, BBC1’s wonderful Imagine… series tackled ‘The Many Lives of William Klein’ and got us all talking in the office, discussing whether the first street photographer was Klein or Cartier-Bresson.

Well, it turns out it was neither – Wikipedia reliably informs me that Eugène Atget was the father of street photography. We’ve all got a lot to learn…

The point, in any case, is not to compare the two. They were each practicing quite different styles and methods of photography and were pioneers in their own right. While Cartier-Bresson relied on remaining an inconspicuous, anonymous figure weaving through the streets to capture one perfect instant – and the ‘instant’ was what really mattered to Cartier-Bresson; he did not believe in post production or, really anything beyond that moment of capture – Klein had, by all accounts, a much more in-your-face approach. He was not shy about his subjects being aware of his presence, and many of his shots were set up. Often it is the juxtaposition between the parts of his shot that were pre-arranged and the parts that were not that gives his photographs their dynamism.

But what brings the two photographers together, and what informs the way we understand street photography today, is that they were both engaging with the real. The real world, real people, real streets and situations. Whether set up or shot perfectly in the instant, Michael Freeman puts it better than I can in his book, The Photographers Vision, when he describes street photography as ‘a very specific form of photojournalism in which the photographer walks and looks for the unplanned moment, the coincidence of people or actions or form, hoping for the surprise. And also hoping to be able to recognize it quickly when it happens, and to capture it.’


Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Street photography is in its essence all about the unexpected, and it remains unexpected because it engages with photography as a medium whose role is to captures instants that are gone too fast for our usual perception to notice.

Both Klein and Cartier-Bresson were doing something that hadn’t been seen before.  The question now, as ever, is what remains yet to come in street photography – especially in the age of ubiquity, when just about anyone with a half-decent camera phone can call themself a street photographer. Rather than being put off by the examples of the greats, I hope you will be inspired – and most of all remember that some of their greatest successes came about through chance, courage, and a few happy accidents.

If you’re inspired, you could do a lot worse than to check out The Photographers Vision by Michael Freeman, and The New Street Photographers Manifesto by Tanya Nagar.

At the time of writing, BBC1′s Imagine… The Many Lives of William Klein is available to watch on iPlayer, so if you missed it I highly recommend catching it before it goes.

Posted by

Rachel Silverlight

Assistant Editor at Ilex Photo, Rachel's made just about every mistake it's possible to make with a camera from lens caps left on to films not loaded. All in all, better at looking at photos than taking them.

1 Comment to Klein vs. Cartier-Bresson: street photography

  1. March 24, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Right, I’d like to state that to say that William Klein, despite his fantastic and innovative style that definitely moved the world on as far as street photography and anti-technique is concerned. He is almost certainly not the person responsible for making street photography and turning it into the mainstream art that it has become today.

    If I where to have written this article myself, I would not actually be comparing Henri-Cartier-Bresson and William Klein, but in fact Henri-Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. I can argue this point for many reasons;

    -Frank began to work in his field of photography which we refer to as street photography far before William Klein and Frank’s earliest influential piece was before Klein’s was released.

    -Robert Frank has many mentions and links to Henri-Cartier-Bresson’s work (which shows in his most famed book ‘The Americans’) and William Klein never truly adopted such innovative methods.

    In addition to this, I would also like to say that the true ‘godfather’, would indeed be bresson in my opinion, simply because his work came first and because of this I find it the most interesting.

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