Too Much of a Good Thing

Always steering clear of fashionable ideas, photographer Helmut Klein has found his own, very memorable style

On The Town | Gina Lee Falco, Tav Falco | July / August 2011

"Too much perfection is not good for photography," photographer Helmut Klein told a group of students at Webster University Vienna experimenting with genres and media across the analogue/digital divide.  Back in Vienna from recent photo shoots in Venice and in Israel sandwiched between meetings with his publisher in Germany, Klein drew on examples from a career that spans four decades in fashion, press and fine art photography.  A member of the Art Directors Club of New York, and the only Austrian represented in the Saatchi Gallery in London, Klein’s position in the professional world is unassailable. But for the man himself, taking pictures is simply a way of life, as basic as breathing:

"I am a photographer, my life is photography, and I will always be a photographer until I am no longer living."

His latest book of digital photographs, Hamburgs Brücken (Bridges of Hamburg) to be released by Hoffmann und Campe in June, is the latest expression of a passion that began in childhood. He began at age eight with his father’s Agfa-Isolette and then a Kodak Retina 35mm with a Schneider lens - acquired at age fourteen. By the age of sixteen his photographs of a jazz concert landed him a ten-page feature spread in a national magazine. Upon completion of his studies as a lithographer and prepress engineer, the young Klein found it impossible to qualify for the required Austrian Masterprüfung license. In 1970 he moved to South Africa where he worked as a press photographer for Daily Mail and the Sunday Times in Johannesburg. His essays documenting the apartheid system of that time became classics of photo-journalism as well as camera art.

After freelancing for several years in Vancouver and Seattle, Klein returned to Vienna and finally became certified. Since then, he has been operating out of his photography studio in Vienna as well as maintaining an office in Hamburg, the publishing center of the German-speaking world. In 1983 he became a member and artist in residence of the Vienna Künstlerhaus, where he gave master classes and presented a solo exhibition of his works.

At every stage, Klein was careful to steer clear of the fashionable ideas making the rounds in the profession. With every trend, he sighed, the pattern is the same:

"The first is interesting, the second is good, the third OK, the fourth already boring."   Often these trends follow the latest technology, as when Nikon brought out the extreme wide-angle fish eye lens. Suddenly, "every magazine you open has pictures with the fish eye lens," he related. But "pretty soon the novelty wears off and… nobody wants to print a picture with a fish eye lens; it’s no longer fashionable."

Trends like this are a trap for a photographer: A trend can make the ordinary seem special, but also bypass work of more enduring quality.

"Just because a picture is different from any other picture, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good," said Klein. "Nowadays ultra wide panorama pictures are fashionable. I don’t like gimmicks." He paused, "but if the client likes it – fine."

In Vienna, Klein created a stir in 2004 with a monumental exhibition at Vienna’s Dorotheum entitled Wien, Wien nur du allein (Vienna, Vienna, Only You Alone, from the song text by Rudolf Sieczynski). His illuminating scenes of Vienna, rendered in stark tones of black and white film, transcended all current stereotypes. Although inspired by the lives and works of photographers such as Eugene Atget, Josef Sudek, Philippe Halsmann, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and David Bailey, Klein went his own way, reinterpreting the traditions in each new context.

"The art of lighting has changed over the last forty years," said Klein. "Look at magazines: Take a Vogue from 1950. They used 8 x 10 inch film cameras and exquisite lenses, very expensive photography. They used artificial light but not flash. Super! Looking at the magazines from the 60s and 70s most of the pictures have a soft light. A good photographer can make a soft light look very good, with delicate shadows and gradation of tone, rather than totally flat lighting devoid of shadows." Even so, Klein remarked that after ten or fifteen years people found soft light boring. Then, he observed, "Movie light became interesting again, like the spotlight effect in Casablanca."

The successful photographer must adapt to technological trends, he said, which seem to be unfolding with evermore rapidity.  When he started with digital, Klein didn’t know much about the new techniques. "The pictures for one job were underexposed by four F-stops, nearly black," he admitted, chagrined. Fortunately, the information was there. He was able to bring up the image in Photoshop, but the pictures were grainy. Still, he was able to sell the grainy pictures to the client as an artistic effect. "Then the printer worked like crazy to get the grain out of the image and the result was perfect," Klein related, "but we had troubles with the client who wanted the grain. It was a horrible situation."

That was hardly the first time: Sometimes the most interesting things happen by mistake.  "And if the client likes the artistic effect," Klein said, then everybody tries to copy it. Other effects grow out of the circumstances, the sometimes less-than-desirable conditions or the limited budgets a photographer has to work with. Then he has to improvise and invent in a way that produces unexpected and often better results. "Gimmicks and happy mistakes can turn into a viable product."

Digital photography has changed the game for photographers in just a few years, and for many purposes, making film obsolete. In fine art photography, though, there is still a role for film. When a client comes with a request, the photographer needs the know-how and craftsmanship to deal with the subject, model, lighting, style, etc. "A professional has to create or recreate a situation while a good amateur finds a situation then relies on good luck." For the latter, the Internet has become the new marketplace for photographers.

"Some photographers specialize: architecture or food and beverage or fashion," Klein says, "but when I started out I did everything, because I needed the money. I think that was good for me." However some specialties can wear thin, though, he admitted. After a few restaurant jobs, he cannot look at food anymore. It’s the same with fashion. You have to specialize to get work with top international clients.  But if you do it well, you can easily get labeled. Klein had an agent in New York who sold him under two different names, as clients could not believe that someone could do still life with an 8 x 10 camera and an unsharp black and white with a Leica.

"But it’s a nicer life if you change your subjects," he insisted. "From a fashion shoot, you can learn something you can use for your next architectural job… [for ex.] the challenge of making an ugly, unattractive building look interesting. And you will understand how to do it.

"This, the technique, you can learn.  But not how to feel and how to see. That must come from within."

Other articles from this issue