William Klein obituary | Photography

“I photograph what I see in front of me,” said William Klein, who died at the age of 96. “I get closer to see better and I use a wide-angle lens to get as much in frame as possible.” Uncompromising, ambitious and direct, the words are characteristic of this American photographer and filmmaker, who spared no effort in his first publication, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956).

The title of the book was a mouthful of Madison Avenue mixed with the Daily News. Klein presented a gritty, grimy and claustrophobic New York: a sea of ​​faces in a seedy city, with open mouths, big eyes, big smiles and furrowed brows. Klein saw the book “as a tabloid gone mad, rough layout, over-inked, blunt, bullhorn headlines. This is what New York deserved and would get.

Avoiding any excuse to be the unassuming observer, he pushed forward and pointed his finger. The photographs are a cacophony of black and white, a blizzard of charcoal grains and blotchy gray shapes, oscillating between formal and blurry, driven by chance and chaos. Neon signs, billboards, concrete and asphalt, all pressed together in the photographic frame to give the impression of a city crushed under a shoe – Klein’s shoe.

Antonia and Yellow Taxi, New York, 1962, by William Klein. Photography: William Klein/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Settled in Paris from 1948, he came to photography from his first art studies. He had enrolled at the Sorbonne to take an art history course and had studied painting with Fernand Léger, whose training in cubism and futurism, and the development of what became pop art, had a profound influence on Klein. Léger’s statement that he wanted to “paint in slang with all his color and mobility” forms a close parallel to the street photography that became one of Klein’s hallmarks.

Klein painted in a geometric abstract style, eventually producing murals and kinetic art (art that incorporates movement). To free himself from what he calls “the same old paintings of circles, squares and triangles”, he uses his kinetic art to create photograms – traces of light on photographic paper.

Working in Milan, he produced a series of quasi-abstract photographic covers for the architecture magazine Domus, which drew the attention of Alexander Liberman, artistic director of American Vogue, to his work. Klein had experimented with a Rolleiflex camera; not in the studio but, as he puts it, “looting the streets”. Liberman perceived a stark graphic quality in Klein’s photographs which he believed would have a perverse beauty in the glossy magazine.

Liberman lured Klein to New York in 1954 with the offer of a contract as a Vogue fashion photographer and funding to complete his own photographic project. Klein chose to photograph his hometown. “I had a kind of particular double vision, one eye almost Parisian, the other an incorrigible New York scholar. I realized that the culture shock I was feeling would eventually wear off, so I went into town and shot non-stop, with, literally, a vengeance.

No American publisher would touch the resulting book, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York. According to Klein, “Everyone I showed it to said ‘Ech! It’s not New York – too ugly, too seedy, too one-sided… It’s not photography, it’s shit.'”

William Klein in Paris, 2016.
William Klein in Paris, 2016. “I had a kind of peculiar double vision, one eye almost Parisian, the other an incorrigible wise New Yorker,” he said. Photograph: Zhong Weixing/AP

Finally, he takes it to Paris, where he shows it to the filmmaker Chris Marker, who then works for the Seuil editions and produces Petite Planète, a series of pocket travel books. Overcoming their objections, Marker persuaded Editions du Seuil to publish the book in 1956. It won the Prix Nadar for the best photography book published in France.

Klein, despite all the hype, was not inventing a new form of photography. His talent is to appropriate a certain form of it – a particularly daring graphic approach to documentary photography – and to apply it in a format usually reserved for posed monographs.

Liberman was shrewd in spotting him at Klein, and his fashion shoots for Vogue, which he worked for for a decade from 1955, ushered in a new look to set him apart from the era of photographers such as Cecil Beaton.

Klein was actually following in the footsteps of Weegee, the famous crime photographer, and Lisette Model, whose caustic photographs of bathers at Coney Island also inspired Diane Arbus. In turn, Klein’s aggressive style influenced Magnum photographers Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden.

Nina and Simone, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, 1960, by William Klein.
Nina and Simone, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, 1960, by William Klein. Photography: William Klein / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

But Klein’s New York work has always suffered from comparison with Robert Frank’s The Americans, published soon after. Frank’s calmer, more introspective photographs earned him a place at the high table of American photography, while Klein’s loud voice saw the prophet ostracized in his homeland.

Attracted by the cinema as much as by photography, he went to Italy to work as an assistant to Federico Fellini on Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), published a photo book of Rome (1959), and continued with d ‘other cities photo books, Moscow (1964) and Tokyo (1964).

He returned to New York to make Broadway By Light (1958), a bold, visually graphic Broadway neon blackboard film that Klein said was the first pop art film. Back in Paris, he worked as an artistic consultant on Zazie dans le métro (1960), directed by Louis Malle.

He made a documentary for French television on photographer Richard Avedon and model Suzy Parker and another on electoral behavior during a referendum, which was withdrawn, a few hours before its broadcast, by the French Ministry of Information0. These shared experiences led to her film Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), ridiculing the fashion industry and the television business.

Klein decided to make a film about Muhammad Ali and, in 1964, flew to Miami for the fight between Ali (then still Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston. He saw Malcolm X sitting alone on the plane and sat down next to him. By the time they landed, her new friend had guaranteed Klein great access to the Ali movie. (“Malcolm spread the word that I was fine. I could do anything I wanted.”) He then combined the resulting short, Cassius the Great (1964), with his images of the triumph of ‘Ali in 1974 about George Foreman in the roar of the jungle in Zaire for a two-part documentary, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, released in 1975.

Guardian, Cinecittà, Rome, 1956, by William Klein.
Guardian, Cinecittà, Rome, 1956, by William Klein. Photography: William Klein/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein continued to make films, mostly satirical documentaries, until the end of the century. In the 1980s, he resumed his high-contrast black and white photography and presented these elegantly garish prints framed with the thick red lines of a chinagraph pencil.

In some ways, Klein has been an outsider all his life. A year after she was born, her parents, who were Jewish immigrants, lost their clothing business in the Wall Street crash.

A precocious learner, Klein graduated from high school three years early, then studied sociology at the City College of New York. He joined the army in 1945 and was posted to Germany, where he worked as a cartoonist for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, then moved to Paris, making the city his home for the rest of his life.

In 2012 he received the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award at the Sony World Photography Awards, and that year he held three exhibitions in the UK, including a joint exhibition with Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama at the Tate Modern London. His work was shown most recently in the retrospective William Klein: YES – Photographs, Paintings, Films 1948 to 2013, which opened at the International Center of Photography in New York in June.

He married Jeanne Florin in 1948, having met her on his second day in Paris. She died in 2005. Klein is survived by their son, Pierre, and his sister Caryl.

William Klein, photographer and filmmaker, born April 19, 1928; passed away on September 10, 2022

Leave a Comment