William Klein Profile
William Klein has always been at war. With fashion, style, people, film making and even photography. Now based in Paris and in his nineties, he continues to rage, but now it is at his own work with paint and marker pens. This month Peter Silverton investigates the angry genius.
William Klein was born in 1928 and grew up on the upper west reaches of Manhattan. He was Jewish in an Irish neighbourhood and the son of impoverished parents in a wealthy family. He skipped school to play pool and visit MoMA. Joining the army took him to Europe in the final stages of the war. He liked it there. He’d always felt like a foreigner in his own home town. He won his first camera, a Rolleiflex, playing poker.
Like so many photographers, he started out wanting to be a painter. He moved to Paris in 1948 to study art at the Sorbonne and with the Cubist painter Fernand Léger. In 1952, he photographed some of his own paintings in blurry motion. The Italian magazine Domus put them on the cover. And so Klein became a photographer. “It seemed to me something like magic.”The work that made his name was a book – financed by Vogue for a feature that never ran – entitled Life Is Good & Good For You In New York, William Klein: Trance Witness Revels. Published (and acclaimed) in France in 1956, it didn’t come out in the US until 40 years later.
His starting point was Henri Cartier-Bresson. He bought an old camera from the French master – and ‘very consciously’ developed a technique that was the precise opposite. Where Cartier-Bresson’s aesthetic was invisibility, Klein got in tight and close and personal. “The kinetic quality of New York, the kids, dirt, madness – I tried to find a photographic style that would come close to it. I didn’t see clean technique being right for New York. I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter like the New York Daily News.”
He studied and shot his hometown as if seeing it all for the first time. Ads, street signs, a 7-Up billboard, a pair of young boys with a toy gun pointed at the camera (and viewer). Everything. He sucked it all into his camera.
Grain, blur, burned-out whites and featureless blacks – in search of the meaning he was after, he’d try anything, allow anything. “A technique of no taboos.” His compositions are full – overfull even – and unbalanced. Deliberately so. His pictures know that there is too much in life out there to fit it all into one photograph, but will have a go anyway. They are the images of a hungry artist – hungry in the way that, for an alcoholic, one drink is too many and a thousand never enough. “I could never get enough into the camera. I wanted it all in a gluttonous rage.”
He’s an angry man, too, even now – in many ways, still the isolated, different child in an indifferent world. “He has a knack of offending people, particularly those who might help him,” wrote John Heilpern in an Aperture monograph. He worked for Vogue and made a good living from fashion photography, creating images as filled with life and impatience and hunger as his pictures of New York. Yet he always makes a point of announcing that he hated the fashion world and everything about it apart from the models.
Not that he chased them. He was faithful to his wife, Belgian model Jeanne Florin, “the most beautiful woman in the world”. They met on his second day in Paris and were together until her death in 2005. She described him as: “Someone who never really wants to reveal who he is. All the important people, he was never polite to them, even those he liked. He hardly has any close friends. Maybe I’m the only one. He never played the game.’He made books on Rome, Moscow, Tokyo. He mostly gave up photography in the mid-1960s, in favour of the moving image. He made films, low-budget, self-distributed ones about Muhammad Ali, Little Richard, fashion – Qui Êtes-Vous, Polly Magoo? He has made more than 250 TV commercials. He returned to photography in the 1980s, inspired by new interest in his old pictures. He has photographed Barcelona and rephotographed his loved-hated New York.
Recently, in his eighties, he took to painting directly on to his contact sheets, in garish enamels. William Klein is alive and, well, living in Paris – in an apartment in the 6th arrondissement overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens and around the corner from where Man Ray died, broke.
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