American photographer William Klein, icon of street photography, died at the age of 96

American photographer William Klein, icon of street photography, died at the age of 96

The American William Klein, who revolutionized street photography and fashion photography, but also a film director, painter and graphic designer, died Monday September 12 at the age of 96 in Paris, where he had lived since 1947.

Son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, William Klein was born on April 19, 1928 in New York and grew up on the outskirts of Harlem. He wants to be a painter and already he dreams of Paris, “to meet Hemingway at the Ritz and Giacometti at the Coupole”he confided to Release April 16, 2002. He discovered Europe during his military service, where he was part of the occupying troops in Germany after the war. In the army, he buys a Rolleiflex by winning at poker. Thanks to a scholarship, he arrived in Paris in 1947, took an interest in abstract painting and frequented Fernand Léger’s studio.

William Klein was invited in 1953 to create abstract paintings to decorate the corridors of the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. His paintings inspire him with abstract photographs but he does not yet think of making photography his profession. It was in 1954, when he returned to New York that his life changed. Alexander Libermann, the artistic director of Vogue, loves his photos and hires him to do fashion photography.

“Fashion gave me extraordinary means: multiple flashes, sets, assistants… I was able to try out new techniques, which I then used for my personal work. not interested. And the designers, even less”he said to Telerama on September 23, 2011. However, he revolutionized fashion photography by bringing models out into the street, mingling them with passers-by, playing their silhouettes with the graphics of the city.

Retrospective exhibition of photographer William Klein at the Center Pompidou Beaubourg on December 6, 2005 in Paris (PIERRE VERDY / AFP)

At the same time, he pursues a personal project of a photographic “diary” in the streets of New York. “I have always hated pictorialist photography, mist, drapery effects, bullshit staging. I was no more convinced by sentimental, humanist, nostalgic and clean photography, which dominated at the beginning of the 1990s. 1950. I wanted to shake things up. I had to stay as far away as possible from art photography”he told the World May 5, 2002.

In the streets of New York, William Klein gets as close as possible to the people he captures at wide angle, distorting his subjects, with motion effects. In the print, it forces the grain, the contrasts. His daring framings express all the energy of a tumultuous, chaotic, moving city on which he takes a fresh look. This work does not interest the Americans. It was in Paris that the first edition of New York (Where Life is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels), at Le Seuil, thanks to the support of director, writer and photographer Chris Marker. This book, which was to become a monument in the history of photography, was then published in the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan. It earned him the Nadar Prize in 1957.

Exposure "New York" by William Klein at the museum in Palencia, Spain, June 13, 2021 (JOAQUIN GOMEZ SASTRE / NURPHOTO)

William Klein will then work in the streets of Rome (1958), Moscow (1964), Tokyo (1964), but it is his work on New York that has marked history. Much later, in 2002, he devoted a book (Paris + KleinMarval) and an exhibition in Paris, the city he dreamed of as a teenager, which he adopted, which he sees “multi-ethnic and colorful” and in color (The world, May 5, 2002). “My photography is close to the brothel of the street, it goes in all directions. It is only in a demonstration that I can bring together so many “faces”, multiply the combinations and organize this chaos”he said then.

William Klein has also directed numerous advertising films as well as around twenty films, short, medium and feature films. In the first, Broadway By Light (1958), he plays in color with the lights and signs of Times Square in New York. The most famous will undoubtedly remain Who are you Polly Maggoo (1967), a satire on the world of fashion and show business. He also devoted a film to Muhammad Ali, a great boxing champion and activist for the black cause, who refused to go and fight in Vietnam and whom he followed for ten years. Another to black activist Eldridge Cleaver (Eldridge Cleaver Black Panther1969), or one to rock legend Little Richard (The Little Richard Story, 1980).

From the end of the 1980s, he mixed painting and photography by creating “painted contacts”: fragments of enlarged contact sheets which he adorned with strokes of paint in bright colors, yellow, red, blue.

In 1989, he came up with the idea for the series contacts on Arte, short programs of thirteen minutes where photographers are invited to talk about their work from their contact sheets, their prints or their slides.

William Klein has had numerous personal exhibitions in prestigious institutions around the world, at the Center Pompidou (1983, 2005), at the MoMA in New York (1980), at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne (1988), at the Museum of Modern Art of San Francisco (1995), at the Rencontres d’Arles (1978, 1982, 2016), at the Tate Modern in London (2012)…

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