Sometimes a photo is about so much more than what it depicts. Such is the case with William Klein’s 1954 image.
What we literally have is an image of child pointing a toy gun at the photographer. The look on his face is one of aggression, his face screwed up like a man about to deliver a punch. By his side an angelic looking blonde child looks on with an innocent look, as if the emotions the boy depicts are unknown to him.
Of course in reality the boy with the gun was undoubtedly playing. His expression a parody of how he imagines a gun-wielding psycho might look.
Yet to the viewer the gun is real and the threat of violence palpable. The innocence of the boy’s sidekick only serves to exaggerate the boy’s ill intentions as we imagine them. He also disturbs us further with his slightly upturned gaze, suggesting this is someone he looks up to.
When we are told that this image is taken in New York in the fifties we read even more into the image. Now it is a symbol of a society in breakdown where even the children carry guns. It plays on our understanding, received through numerous articles and films, of what New York is supposedly like.
If we take an even wider view we begin to see that it is not just NYC that is symbolized in this picture but also America.
The idea of a populace obsessed with guns and gun ownership, a land of cowboy gunslingers and serial killers, is hot wired into this snapshot.
Sandy Hook, Columbine and Aurora seem nascent in this moment. It’s a photograph that is totally linked to the nation in which it was taken. In many ways it’s the perfect picture that expresses the stunning ability of a solitary image to capture a story that would take a novel’s worth of words too express.