The Arty Semite

William Klein, Photographer of Fashion and Filth

By Anne Joseph

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Copyright William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London

At almost 86, the pioneering photographer, artist and filmmaker William Klein, continues to draw a crowd. On February 23, Klein was at Jewish Book Week in London discussing his life and work with Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC and editor and presenter of the television arts series, “Imagine.” The event was a sell-out — a testament to Klein’s extraordinary contribution, influence and sheer range of work.

Klein may have appeared physically frail, but his humor and renowned feisty nature were evident throughout. Yentob described Klein as “a pioneer of the photobook,” a person who refused to be pigeonholed. People are willing accomplices in his pictures, he said, they are participating with him. Klein’s early, raw, energetic and at times, angry 1950-‘60s images of the street are illustrated in his series of books about cities — firstly New York, then Rome, Moscow and Tokyo. These were a dramatic contrast to the classical composition epitomised 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 controversial political satire about the fashion industry, “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1966), which starred his favorite model, Dorothy McGowan. There were “no rules as far as he was concerned,” she has said of Klein’s work.

In 2012 Klein received the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the annual Sony World Photography Awards. That same year he had a retrospective at the Tate Modern in the U.K., alongside the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. In 2013, the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York exhibited “William Klein: Paintings, Etc.”

After the war, Klein moved to Paris, where he still lives. As a result of serving in the U.S. army in Germany and France, 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. I always dreamt of becoming an artist in Paris,” he said. The Red Cross had given him a bike to investigate the city — “I had a list of places that I wanted to see” — and as 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 was referring to Jeanne Florin, his wife muse and confidante. She died in 2005.

Klein came to photography by accident. After the Sorbonne he worked with artist Fernand Léger in his studio. “His take on art on was so different. He talked about art with no frills.” Léger told him to go and work in the city and paint murals. But it was while photographing some black and white abstract paintings, large interior murals he had made on moveable panels, that he realised 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,” he explained. “I had no real notion of what photography was about. I had no training.” 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 during this period as his work combined a sense of theatricality with photography and art.

It was then that Klein produced “Life is Good & Good For You in New York,” his first photobook. 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. Fuelled with adrenalin and excitement, these were challenging, dirty images of the city, of ethnic neighbourhoods that had not been captured before. “I grew up in New York, in a rough neighbourhood where our biggest concern was not getting beat up. I was always far from the centre of the Big Apple. My view of America was New York; the same shitty place as it is today.”

In the late 1950s Klein began working with film. Depicting the neon lights of Broadway and Times Square, his first 15-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.”

Klein retains his lust for life and work as he continues to travel and shoot pictures. A clip in a recently made documentary with Yentob shows 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.”

A small selection of Klein’s early abstract images from 1950s will be exhibited at Art 14, a modern contemporary art fair in London and then at the Armory Show (March 6 - 9) in New York.

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