The Color Photographs of Irwin Klein

I’ve seen several references here and there to the work of Irwin Klein (1933-1974),  whose life ended tragically with a fall from his Brooklyn window. After his death, all of his negatives, cameras and other gear, and most of his prints were lost or stolen. All that remains are a small number of vintage black and white prints along with a few colour slides.

While most people seem to be interested in the black and white prints (and there are some pictures I really like, although perhaps others that don’t quite come off) it is his colour work that I find more interesting. Perhaps because in 1972-4 when he was taking it there was much less colour work visible around and to some extent he had to find his own way, while his black and white follows more or less similar lines to a number of other fine photographers working around the same time.

There are two shows of his work at the Domeischel Gallery web site and he has an exhibition at the Madison Avenue, NY, gallery which closes at the end of this month. His black and white work, along with much of the other photography I found on the gallery site,  is a demonstration of the immense influence of one of the great photographic ferments of the mid-twentieth century based around the New York Photo League.  Although this organisation, based as it was around a humanistic and basically left-leaning progressive view of society was brought to a disastrous end by the rise of the cold war and McCarthyism, it’s influence has continued to power much of photography since.

There was just so much happening in photography in New York at that time, so many photographers, and so many good photographers among them. Klein was one of them, and although it is good to see his black and white work, some of which can stand comparison with the best, it perhaps adds just a little to a vast body of great work by so many. When I first looked at the site around the start of the show in March I found one or two outstanding and familiar pictures – such as his Minnesota fire image which fronts his black and white work, but didn’t feel overall that there was anything new to mention. I stopped looking before I came to his colour.

Irwin Klein’s colour pictures all date from the last two years of his life, 1972-4, and it was a time when photographers were just beginning to discover (or re-discover) colour as a vehicle for their personal work.  If you wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer at that time it was black and white that mattered (a prejudice that still occasionally surfaces even in this digital age.)   There wasn’t the same vast and accessible tradition as with black and white and photographers who took colour (and many of us did) were very much finding our own ways of trying to avoid the clichés of commercial and advertising photography.

There is certainly nothing of the chocolate box about Klein’s colour, which in some images clearly draws on his black and white work, but I think sometimes has a greater intimacy and is more personal.  For me there is a feeling that these were pictures that he was making for himself rather than – as sometimes with the black and white – an audience with particular preconceived ideas. It is of course sad that what we see here is probably all or most that remains of his work, and I for one would have loved there to be more than these couple of dozen images.

2 Responses to “The Color Photographs of Irwin Klein”

  1. bfklein says:

    Hi. I came across this entry earlier this afternoon.

    You might be interested to learn that the University of Nebraska Press published Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico (2016). I compiled, edited, and contributed to the supporting essays – and raised the funds to defray the cost of reproducing the photographs.

    Ben Klein

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