Master of the close-up, William Klein launched a genre

At 86 the Jewish photographer still focuses his lens on the overlooked visions of New York

William Klein (Copyright William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London)
William Klein (Copyright William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London)

LONDON — It is a testament to his outstanding contribution, influence and sheer range of work that at almost 86, the pioneering photographer, artist and filmmaker William Klein can still draw a crowd.

Klein was at Jewish Book Week in London last month discussing his life and work with Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC and editor and presenter of the television arts series, Imagine.

Casually dressed in faded jeans, a sweater and sporting a red scarf, his distinguished mane of now thinning white hair is still striking. Klein may appear physically frail but his humor and feisty nature were evident throughout.

Yentob described Klein as “a pioneer of the photobook,” a person who refused to be pigeonholed. Klein’s early, raw, energetic and at times, angry 1950/60s images of the street — of New York, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo — were a dramatic contrast to the classical composition of the time, epitomized by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. While Bresson kept his distance from his subjects, Klein came after people with his camera; a master of the close-up.

Klein’s work as a filmmaker included the first ever documentary about the fighter Muhammad Ali (1969) as well as a 1966 controversial political satire about the fashion industry, “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” which starred his favorite model, Dorothy McGowan, a super model of her day. There were “no rules as far as he was concerned,” she has said of working with Klein.

A recipient of numerous awards, in 2012 he received the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the annual Sony World Photography Awards. That same year he had a retrospective at Tate Modern alongside the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama.

In London, speaking slowly with a trace of an American accent despite living in Paris for 60 years, he explained that he had served in the US army in Germany and France. As a result, in 1948 he had received an ex-serviceman’s grant and gone to study theater at the Sorbonne.

“Twenty-five soldiers were chosen to go to Paris as part of the Franco-American friendship deal [G.I. Bill]. I always dreamt of becoming an artist in Paris. Thanks to the army, it happened,” said Klein.

The Red Cross had given him a bike to investigate the city, “I had a list of places that I wanted to see,” and while he was cycling through the Latin Quarter he saw the most beautiful woman.

“I got off my bike and asked her some dumb questions. All I could see was her high cheekbones. It was love at first sight. The next day we went out and stayed together for 50 years,” he said of his wife Jeanne Florin, his muse, and his confidante. She died in 2005.

Klein came to photography by accident. After the Sorbonne he worked with artist, Fernand Léger.

“His take on art on was so different. He talked about art with no frills. He was a real artist, an innovator, a creator,” said Klein.

Léger told him to go and work in the city and paint murals.

‘We were full of Picasso, full of shit really. We all wanted to be Klee, Matisse, Picasso’

“We were full of Picasso, full of shit really. We all wanted to be Klee, Matisse, Picasso.”

But it was while photographing some black and white abstract paintings, large interior murals he had made on moveable panels, that he realized he had an original take on photography. He took a picture using a long exposure as someone moved the panels and, when developing the image, he saw that the abstract shape had created a blur effect.

“I was 24 years old at the time. I had no real notion of what photography was about. I had no training. By accident I put a negative in an enlarger and you can do many things with that negative,” said Klein.

Photography and its process intrigued him but his commercial break came in 1955 when Alexander Liberman, the influential art director of Vogue, saw an exhibition of Klein’s abstract photography and offered him a contract to come and work for him in New York. There he worked as a fashion photographer for 10 years. Klein’s two worlds — the street and fashion — collided as his work combined a sense of theatricality with photography and art.

Unlike Richard Avedon, Klein chose not to attend the fashion shows where the new collections were presented, admitting that he had not been interested in the designers’ work but rather wanted to concentrate on creating a sense of atmosphere. “With fashion there was the possibility of experimenting,” he said. “I thought of movies.”

'Nina + Simone,' Piazza di Spagna, Rome (Vogue), 1960 (William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London)
‘Nina + Simone,’ Piazza di Spagna, Rome (Vogue), 1960 (William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London)

A particularly renowned image is that of “Nina and Simone” (Vogue, 1960), referred to by Yentob as one of the most famous fashion pictures of its era. Two models in black and white dresses pass one another on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, the stripes of the models’ dresses chiming with the pedestrian crossing.

Klein had asked the girls to walk back and forth and do double takes. Using a telephoto lens, he shot the images as he stood on the steps; passers-by had been unaware that the girls were models and it had even gone unnoticed that he was taking pictures.

It was during this period in New York that Klein produced “Life is Good & Good For You in New York,” his first photobook. Rome, Moscow and Tokyo followed. Although it was published in France in 1956, it was many years before he would find an American publisher.

The book portrayed a New York that had hitherto been unseen, showing what people did not want to see. Fuelled with adrenalin and excitement, however these were challenging, dirty images of the city, of ethnic neighborhoods that had not been captured before.

“I grew up in New York, in a rough neighborhood where our biggest concern was not getting beat up. I was always far from the center of the Big Apple. My view of America was New York; the same shitty place as it is today.”

Yet for his father, he said, it was the center of the world, despite struggling financially. Klein likened him to the character Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who never made it.

In the late 1950s Klein began working with film. Depicting the neon lights of Broadway and Times Square, his first fifteen minute short, “Broadway by Light” (1958), is a film made with music and no dialogue. Considered among the first pop-art films, it was Klein’s critical commentary on the commercialism of New York, a place that he described as “a monument to the dollar.” Unique in its use of color, Orson Welles told Klein that, “This is the first film I have ever seen where color is indispensable.”

A “super fan of Welles,” Klein had come across him at a quay in New York and had taken the opportunity to tell him about his film. Once on the boat, he showed it to Welles. “I took [his comment] as a compliment,” Klein said. “At that point, Welles had not made a film in color.”

Klein retains his lust for life and work as he continues to travel and shoot pictures. In a recently made documentary done with Yentob, a clip showed Klein in a barber’s shop in Harlem, chatting to the barber and his client before loading his camera.

“I like film,” he tells them. “I’m old fashioned.”

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