William Klein burst onto the photography scene in the mid-1950s with a series of photobooks focusing on the streets and inhabitants of four of the world’s major metropolises.
The images he produced in New York, Rome, Tokyo and Moscow were explosive, vibrant and deeply personal, capturing life at street level in a way that had never been seen before.
Klein, who had returned to his native New York in 1954 after eight years of living in Europe, cemented his place as one of the most influential photographers of all time with the release of his first book, the 1956 Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels.
A gritty, cacophonous and sometimes violent diary of Klein’s odyssey through the city’s streets, his urgent and his frenzied approach impressed upon the viewer the visceral reality of New York life in the 1950s.
Part of what made New York so revelatory was its rejection of the traditional values of street photography of the time. Masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï believed that photographers should work silently, remaining unseen and unnoticed in order to capture life as it naturally unfolded.
In snubbing these established practices, Klein inadvertently set about developing a powerful new language for street photography, employing techniques such as blur, imbalance and discord to give his images an unmistakable immediacy.
The results were radical. The voyeurism that pervaded Cartier-Bresson’s work was cast aside, replaced by imagery that reached out and grabbed the viewer, thrusting them into the centre of the action.
Klein forced his audience to stare into the eyes of his subjects and in doing so created an intimate portrait of New York that was aggressive, in your face, occasionally ugly, grainy, energetic and full of vitality. “I was working alone, following my instinct,” Klein recalled. “I had no real respect for good technique because I didn't know what it was. I was self-taught, so that stuff didn't matter to me.”
The way he interacted with his subjects, often cajoling them into posing for him, resulted in some of the book’s strongest images. “I thought people could be provoked to pose or play a role in some situations,” Klein explained. “The way a subject reacts to the camera can create a kind of happening. Why pretend the camera isn’t there? Why not use it? Maybe people will reveal themselves as violent or tender, crazed or beautiful. But in some way, they reveal who they are. They’ll have taken a self-portrait.”
A fine example of this is Gun 1 (see below), an image that has become one of the most enduring and widely-recognized photographs of the 20th century. Turning the spontaneous into the calculated – a favorite technique of his – it depicts two children playing with a gun on a busy sidewalk.
On being told by Klein to “act tough”, the older child with the gun distorts his face in mock anger and thrusts his revolver at Klein’s lens. The smaller child by his side is innocent and naïve, turning the image into a study of the contrasting themes of violence and innocence.
The Medium Is the Message
It wasn’t just Klein’s pioneering way of shooting, or his humanistic approach, that made New York so revolutionary. Further to the imagery, the way the book was presented broke with established tradition. The cover, text, layout and typography, all solely designed by Klein, was intended to shock and add to the visual cacophony. He crammed multiple images onto one page to give a feeling of claustrophobia while the next would be left blank but for a sparse, singular photo.
While this might seem tame by today’s standards, at the time it was bold and adventurous. Another hugely influential photobook released just two years later, Robert Frank’s The Americans, is prescriptive in its rigidity. New York, in comparison, feels like a visual onslaught, the photographic equivalent of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness prose that imparted on the viewer the feeling of being in the heart of a bustling city.
New York’s release singled the start of a near decade-long project focusing on the inhabitants of major cities. The next book in the tetralogy was Rome, a place Klein visited in 1957 to help Italian director Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria.
Due to a delay in the start of filming, Klein found himself at a loose end and with camera in hand, he documented the city as he saw it unfold before him. Books on both Tokyo and Moscow followed in 1964, cementing his place in the upper echelons of photography.
An American in Paris
Although New York is a bittersweet love letter to his native city, Paris is the place that Klein has called home for much of the past 70 years.
Born in a poor Irish neighborhood in East Harlem in 1928, he was keen to escape the U.S. at the first opportunity and, at the age of 18, he joined the army. He was sent to Europe in 1945, first stationed in Germany, then Milan, before finally settling in Paris after his service came to an end.
It was here that he fulfilled his ambition of studying art, attending Paris’ Sorbonne under the tutelage of interdisciplinary artist Fernand Léger.
Léger, a hugely influential figure in Klein’s artistic development, held the formal academics of the Sorbonne in contempt, believing that his students needed to experience art outside of the confines of the gallery in order to broaden their creative horizons. He would instruct pupils to wander the streets of Paris, forcing them to derive inspiration from people, architecture and films.
Under Léger’s guidance, Klein developed a love of abstract geometric painting and soon received his first commission to create a set of kinetic room dividers for the Italian architect Angelo Mangiarotti.
Painting his designs onto rotating panels, Klein thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if he shot the facades as they were moving using his camera’s long exposure.
The results were spectacular. The camera managed to capture and document a miraculous transformation that morphed the static into fluid.
His otherwise inert paintings leapt from the photographic paper and took on a life of their own, one that blended Bauhaus design principles with 1920s Russian constructivism. Klein, realizing he was onto something, returned to the darkroom and began experimenting further.
He studied the works László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes, two artists who deeply believed that photography could provide a new visual language for the modern age.
Klein’s own progressive interpretation of this abstract art began to gain attention. In 1952 one of his images made the front cover of the avant-garde design magazine Domus and shortly after he was invited to present his work at a joint show in Paris entitled Le Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. It was here that he got his big break.
In attendance was Vogue’s editorial director, the hugely influential Alexander Liberman, who immediately offered Klein a job working in the art department of the magazine’s New York offices.
Klein, who had been away from the U.S. for eight long years, finally returned home to an unfamiliar city, one that was awash with advertising and slowly beginning to resemble a slum.
He was tasked by Liberman to help work with page layouts, editorial design and lighting setups, but before long he was given a camera and let loose onto the streets of New York to shoot editorials.
With Vogue’s resources available to him, he began to develop his unmistakable style, one that brought the vibrancy of street life to the pages of the magazine. With film and cameras at his disposable he also began shooting what would go on to become New York, although Vogue refused to publish his images at the time, calling them ugly, grungy and anti-American.
Vietnam, Ali and Filmmaking for Social Change
The success of his city photobooks and work at Vogue kept Klein busy up until the mid-60s until he decided to pursue other artistic avenues. In 1958, while American audiences were still digesting his gritty New York imagery, he began experimenting with filmmaking.
His first endeavor was an ode to the vapid, glittering commercialism of New York’s Times Square. Broadway by Light, a short film of hovering neon signs set to a score from French composer Maurice La Roux, is considered by many to be an early pop art classic and showed Klein’s aptitude for his newly-adopted medium.
As time wore on, he eventually turned his back on photography all together. Tiring of New York, he returned to Paris in 1965 to shoot his first feature film, Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, a satirical parody of the excesses and vanity of the fashion world.
His employers at Vogue didn’t take the joke well, especially the editor Diana Vreeland, who was portrayed disparagingly by actress Grayson Hall. Shortly after the film’s release, Klein left the magazine by mutual consent.
As the sixties rolled on, his filmmaking began to focus more on the social issues facing a rapidly changing America. He would document the protests surrounding the Vietnam War, releasing a film in 1967 alongside five other prominent filmmakers called Far from Vietnam.
But it is his portrayal of boxing legend Muhammed Ali that remains one of his best works. Muhammed Ali, the Greatest, released in 1974, depicts key moments from Ali’s career, from his title fights with Sonny Liston and George Foreman, to his transformation into an increasingly politicized figure for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.
The cast of characters and fast-paced editing mirrored New York, but it is the bravado of Ali, set to a backdrop of racial upheaval facing black Americans in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that showed Klein’s skill as a filmmaker.
It remains one of the finest sport documentaries ever made and tells a powerful story of a man that Klein calls, “not only the sports hero of the century, but the American of the century.”
Life Is Good and Good for You
It is rare for an artist to have such an aesthetic impact on their chosen medium, but Klein’s iconoclastic street photography has made him one of the most influential image makers of the 20th century.
His work was deeply humanistic and, in charting the social and commercial struggles of regular Americans, he developed a new photographic language for the modern age.
Through his painting, fashion work and films, Klein established himself as a multi-disciplined, avant-garde artist – one that was never happy to rest on his laurels.
Throughout his career, he has demonstrated an incredible breadth in his output and his refusal to be categorized makes him one of the most complex and inspirational artists alive today.
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