William Klein has always traced his path as a solitary artist and photographer, outside the nails, following his instinct. Installed without regret far from his country of origin, the United States, with which he maintained a love-hate relationship, this lover of painting threw himself headlong into photography. And it gave birth to one of the most striking and legendary photo books in history, Life is Good & Good for You in New Yorkdedicated to his hometown.
Released in 1956, two years before Americans, by Robert Frank (Delpire, 1958), this work, which has become impossible to find, is then a snub to the tradition of reportage, documentary photography and classical art photography: William Klein collects blurred, unframed images, he shows humans cut or squeezed in the image, accumulate words and advertisements in the pages, tracing the corrosive portrait of a city gripped by consumerist madness.
Klein’s free and rugged 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. did not hesitate to revisit his work, to paint over it, to enlarge his images disproportionately or to invent spectacular hangings. The photographer, also known for his irony and his acerbic verb, died on Saturday September 10, at the age of 96, in Paris, the city where he had taken up residence after the war.
The illusions of the American dream
Born April 19, 1926 in New York to Hungarian Jewish parents, William Klein experienced early social decline when his father, launched in business, stock market and lost his entire fortune in the crisis. This childhood spent in poverty and poor neighborhoods undoubtedly forged her character, difficult, and her distrust of the illusions of the American dream. From adolescence, the young Klein escapes from his home and spends his time at the Museum of Modern Art, dreams of painting in his head. He will achieve his goals in Paris, after the war: demobilized soldier, he can take advantage of a scholarship and settles there with his wife, Jeanne Florin, a Frenchwoman met by chance in the street on a bicycle – this one will become a model. and painter and will remain his companion for fifty years.
In Paris, Klein quickly 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 the eyes “. At the time, Klein painted canvases influenced by geometric abstraction. It is moreover abstraction that leads him to the still image: he takes up photography to create random geometric patterns from sliding panels designed by an architect, Angelo Mangiarotti. His astonishing images will seduce Alexander Liberman, the legendary artistic director of the magazine voguewhich offers him a contract in New York in 1954. This is the beginning of the photographic adventure.
Back in his hometown, equipped with a camera bought second-hand from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Klein then tackles a “picture diary” which pinpoints this town in which he does not recognize himself. Photos that are too radical, too black, will not be accepted by vogue nor by any American publisher. It must be said that it sits on all the codes in force at the time. “I’ve always hated fog, drapery effects, stupid staging, said William Klein to World in 2002. I was no more convinced by the sentimental, humanistic, nostalgic and clean photography, which dominated at the beginning of the 1950s. »
Far from taking on the role of the distanced and invisible observer advocated by his elder Cartier-Bresson, he fits into the frame: he challenges people, provokes them, makes them laugh, and willingly incorporates passers-by watching the scene into his images. ‘objective. With Klein, the photographer is no longer a witness, but an actor in the image. In his most famous photo, 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 mean”. »
Disgust with consumerism
Where Cartier-Bresson pursues the balance of 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 hectic, tabloid-inspired layout, with images of various sizes printed full bleed, and pithy formulas written across the pages. Of the kind : “New York is a Monument to the Dollar. » He gives free rein to his disgust with triumphant consumerism. We guess the arrival of pop art in this work which bears a title in the form of an advertising refrain – Life is Good and Good for you in New York – and where Klein integrates the typography of advertisements and signs into his images. It is from the same material that he will sign a first short film in color, Broadway by Light (1958), dizzying and hallucinated walk in the neon lights of the city.
But the tone of the book, too impertinent and radical, does not pass. “My New York photos are of a primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary anti-Americanism”, said William Klein. And like Robert Frank, he will see his book project shunned in the United States, finding a publisher only in France: the filmmaker 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 to that Klein is finally hailed in his home country. In Europe, on the other hand, the work immediately caused a sensation. The reputation of the book resounds as far as Japan, where it will have a major influence – for example, on the career of photographer Daido Moriyama who remembers the shock he felt. “I was 20 years old, and suddenly, it was fun to take pictures! », declared the Japanese who exhibited alongside Klein in 2012 at the Tate Modern in London.
After New York, Klein will sign three other books on cities: Rome (1958), Moscow (1964), Tokyo (1964), in the same spontaneous and rugged style. The first was born when the photographer, enthusiastic about Fellini’s work, worked as an assistant for the filmmaker on 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 emperors, the graffiti, the advertisements, the shootings at Cinecitta, the children who play 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 vogue, Klein embarked on fashion photography, where he demonstrated audacity and unbridled creativity. With mirrors and spotlights, he duplicates the characters, creates strange reflections or abstract shapes. He does not hesitate to jostle the models, make them smoke like firefighters or climb on the roofs. And above all, he takes them out into 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 pedestrian crossings. Armed with a telephoto lens, he asks the models to go back and forth on the spot, and photographs them from afar. Passers-by, who do not see the photographer, believe that the women are prostitutes and solicit them, challenge them, pinch their buttocks…until the team of vogue, panicked, rings the end of the session. Despite his talents for fashion, the photographer is not interested in his subject, and is hardly fooled by this world of artifice and money. He will sketch this strange universe in the form of a cruel parody, in his film, Who are you Polly Maggoo? (1966).
The photography page turns: after his four books, at the peak of 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 his contract at Vogue- we hardly appreciate that he dares to film the pacifist demonstration in Washington in his documentary Far from Vietnam (1966).
He only returned to photography in a roundabout way: 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 work, again and again. With new versions of his books. Or with his “painted contacts”: Klein covers his negatives with large strokes of acrylic paint, imitating the gesture of the photographer who selects the right image. A way of mixing photography and painting, but also of shamelessly staging 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 series of documentaries “Contacts”, broadcast by Arte in the 1990s, where he invites photographers to comment on their negatives and reveal their creative process.
Installed since the post-war period in an apartment opposite the Luxembourg Gardens decorated with the paintings of his wife, the photographer has until the end kept his independence of spirit and his legendary arrogance. 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 vintage photos. Even in a wheelchair, he liked to snub inconsiderate admirers, dismiss journalists, and curse Donald Trump.
William Klein in a few dates
April 19, 1926 Birth in New York
1954 Signs a contract with the magazine vogue
1956 Publication of the book Life is Good & Good for You in New York
1958 Release of the short film broadway by light
1958 Publishes a book dedicated to Rome
1964 Publish Moscow and Tokyo
1966 Movie release Who are you Polly Magoo?
1966 Movie release Far from Vietnam
2005 Retrospective at the Center Pompidou
2022 Died at 96 in Paris