William Klein has always traced his path as a solitary artist and photographer, out of the nails, following his instincts. Installed without regrets far from his country of origin, the United States, with which he had a love-hate relationship, this lover of painting threw himself headlong into photography. And he has created one of the most evocative and legendary photographic books in history, Life is good and good for you in New Yorkdedicated to his hometown.
Published in 1956, two years earlier Americans, by Robert Frank (Delpire, 1958), this work, which has become unobtainable, is then an affront to the tradition of reportage, documentary photography and classic art photography: William Klein collects blurred and unframed images, shows humans cut or crushed in the image, they accumulate words and advertisements on the pages, tracing the corrosive portrait of a city in the throes of consumerist madness.
Klein’s free and rude style caused a sensation and was copied everywhere, but the photographer never rested on his laurels: moving from street photography to fashion, then to cinema with overtly political films, he never rested on his laurels. work, paint on it, enlarge images of him disproportionately or invent spectacular tapestries. The photographer, also known for his irony and his immature verb, died on Saturday 10 September, at the age of 96, in Paris, the city where he had settled after the war.
The illusions of the American dream
Born on April 19, 1926 in New York to Hungarian Jewish parents, William Klein experienced an early social decline when his father entered the business world, the stock market and lost all his fortune during the crisis. This childhood spent in poverty and slums undoubtedly forged his character, his difficult character, and his distrust of the illusions of the American dream. Since adolescence, the young Klein runs away from home and spends his time at the Museum of Modern Art, dreaming of painting in his head. He will reach his goals in Paris, after the war: demobilized soldier, he can take advantage of a scholarship and there he settles down with his wife, Jeanne Florin, a French woman met by chance on the street on a bicycle – she will become a model and painter and will remain his companion for fifty years.
In Paris Klein soon abandoned the teachings of the painter André Lhote for those of the modernist Fernand Léger: the latter, more in tune with his time and with the energy of the city, taught him above all to “open your eyes”. At the time, Klein painted canvases influenced by geometric abstraction. It is also the abstraction that leads him to the still image: he takes up photography to create random geometric patterns from sliding panels designed by the architect Angelo Mangiarotti. His striking images of him will seduce Alexander Liberman, the magazine’s legendary art director rowingwho offered him a contract in New York in 1954. Thus began the photographic adventure.
Back in his hometown, equipped with a second-hand camera purchased by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Klein then faces an “illustrated diary” that identifies this city in which he does not recognize himself. Photos that are too radical, too black, will not be accepted by rowing nor by any American publisher. It must be said that it is found on all the codes in force at the moment. “I’ve always hated the fog, the draped effects, the silly scenes, William Klein said to World in 2002. I was no longer convinced by the sentimental, humanistic, nostalgic and clean photography that dominated in the early 1950s. “
Loin d’endosser le rôle de l’observateur distancié et invisible prôné par son aîné Cartier-Bresson, il rentre dans le cadre: il interpelle les gens, les provoque, les fait rire, et intègre volontiers dans ses images des passants qui regardent l ‘objective. With Klein the photographer is no longer a witness, but an actor in the image. In the most famous photo of him, a child with a hateful look points a gun at the viewer: “But it was for fun! sighed the photographer, overwhelmed by the first degree interpretations of his image. I told him: “be bad”. “
Disgust with consumerism
Where Cartier-Bresson pursues the balance between composition, geometric rigor and poetry, the suspended moment of grace, Klein prefers to cram the characters into the frame thanks to a wide-angle lens: his images tell of a frantic chase through the different neighborhoods of New York . For his book, Klein himself designed a fast-paced, tabloid-inspired layout with images in various sizes printed in full bleed and concise formulas written across the pages. Like: “New York is a monument to the dollar. “ He gives free rein to his distaste for triumphant consumerism. Let’s imagine the arrival of pop art in this work that bears a title in the form of an advertising refrain – Life is good and good for you in New York – and where Klein integrates advertising and sign typography into his images. It is from the same material that he will sign a first short film in color, Broadway of light (1958), dizzying and hallucinatory walk in the neon lights of the city.
But the tone of the book, too impertinent and radical, does not pass. “My photos of New York are of primary, secondary, tertiary and Quaternary anti-Americanism”, William Klein said. And like Robert Frank, he will see his book project shunned in the United States, finding a publisher only in France: director Chris Marker, then director of the collection at Le Seuil, will publish the book in 1956. It will be necessary to wait until the 1980s. before Klein is finally greeted in his home country. In Europe, however, the work immediately caused a sensation. The book’s reputation resonates all the way to Japan, where it will have a great influence, for example on the career of photographer Daido Moriyama who remembers the shock he felt. “I was 20 and suddenly it was fun to take pictures! “, stated the Japanese who exhibited alongside Klein in 2012 at the Tate Modern in London.
After New York, Klein will sign three more books on cities: Rome (1958), Moscow (1964), Tokyo (1964), in the same spontaneous and rude style. The first arises when the photographer, enthusiastic about Fellini’s work, works as an assistant to the director Cabiria nights. The film is constantly delayed and Klein takes the opportunity to photograph the less touristy districts of the city, the religious fervor, the Communist Party meetings, the busts of the emperors, the graffiti, the advertisements, the shootings in Cinecittà, the children playing football. behind a temple of Apollo. A vision that enchants Pasolini, who signs the texts of the book, as well as Fellini who will have this sentence: “Rome is a film and Klein directed it. “
From fashion photography to cinema
Thanks to rowing, Klein embarked on fashion photography, where he demonstrated boldness and unbridled creativity. With mirrors and spotlights she duplicates the characters, creates strange reflections or abstract shapes. She doesn’t hesitate to push models, make them smoke like firefighters or climb rooftops. And above all he takes them to the street, to rub them against passers-by and everyday life.
In Rome, in charge of photographing striped dresses, Klein had the idea of creating an echo with the features of the pedestrian crossings. Armed with a telephoto lens, he asks the models to back and forth on the spot, and photographs them from afar. Passers-by, who do not see the photographer, believe that women are prostitutes and urge them, challenge them, pinch their buttocks … until the team of rowing, in a panic, the end of the session rings. Despite his talent for fashion, the photographer is not interested in his subject and is not fooled by this world of artifice and money. He will draw this strange universe in the form of a cruel parody, in his film of him, Who are you Polly Maggoo? (1966).
The page of photography turns: after his four books, at the height of his success, William Klein abandons the still image to devote himself to cinema. His films, which testify to his political commitment to the left, will also cost him the contract Rowing- we hardly appreciate that you dare to film the peace demonstration in Washington in your documentary Away from Vietnam (1966).
He returned to photography only indirectly: by organizing spectacular exhibitions, where he produced his images in huge formats, which telescoped and echoed each other – as in his retrospective at the Center Pompidou in 2005. Or by revisiting his own. work, again and again. With new versions of the books of him. Or with his “painted contacts”: Klein covers his negatives with large brushstrokes of acrylic, imitating the gesture of the photographer who selects the right image. A way to mix photography and painting, but also to shamelessly stage the behind the scenes of the images: on the negative, we see that his famous armed child is sometimes angry, sometimes laughing. A reflection that he will extend in the documentary series “Contacts”, broadcast by Arte in the 90s, where he invites photographers to comment on their negatives and reveal their creative process.
Installed since the war in an apartment facing the Luxembourg Gardens decorated with his wife’s paintings, the photographer maintained his independence of spirit and legendary arrogance until the end. If he had entrusted his contemporary prints to the Parisian gallery Polka, he has always remained faithful to his Lyon gallery Le Réverbère for his period photos. Even in a wheelchair, he enjoyed snubbing reckless admirers, firing reporters, and cursing Donald Trump.
William Klein in a few dates
April 19, 1926 Born in New York
1954 Sign a contract with the magazine rowing
1956 Publication of the book Life is good and good for you in New York
1958 Short film release broadway to the light
1958 Publishes a book dedicated to Rome
1964 To publish Fly And Tokyo
1966 Release of the film Who are you Polly Magoo?
1966 Release of the film Away from Vietnam
2005 Retrospective at the Center Pompidou
2022 Died at 96 in Paris