ART : Images of a Lifetime : William Klein’s work, from his gritty take on ‘50s New York to his distinctive fashion statements, are collected in three exhibitions.


William Klein wasn’t looking for trouble. And yet there he was, mingling among the students and unionists, the revolutionaries and Trotskyites, the anarchists waving their black flags, the looters visiting from the suburbs. Klein just wanted to see their faces.

Whatever alarming new government policy had sent these thousands of French into the streets last March was irrelevant to Klein’s purposes. He had come with a camera, but not as a photojournalist, and was more interested in that young woman marching on stilts, or the expressions of those watching the parade pass by.

“The casting is so incredible,” Klein said of the crowds lining the Paris streets. “You go to these demonstrations or parades, there is so much happening around it.”


Klein, 65, has spent the last 45 years capturing scenes like these as a photographer, filmmaker and painter, often drawn to moments of high energy and tension. His earliest black-and-white photographs, done in the 1950s, seemed to contradict the bland optimism of the Eisenhower years, finding Klein’s hometown of New York a claustrophobic mess, with hardened, sometimes violent, people adrift in the city.

His grainy, blurred photographs of young children posed with toy guns, of grim-faced adults numbly crowding sidewalks, helped create a new visual vocabulary in photography, more confrontational than Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” And during a decade-long stint as a fashion photographer for Vogue, beginning in 1955, Klein helped transform the genteel trappings of fashion photography. This wide-ranging career is the subject of a retrospective exhibition of 75 pictures at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles opening Thursday.

The show is just one part of a new avalanche of attention for this native New Yorker, who has lived in Europe since being sent there with the Army in 1945. (He settled in Paris later that year as one of 25 servicemen to study art at the Sorbonne through a post-war program.) A more comprehensive retrospective opened Saturday at the International Center of Photography in New York. In January, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosts a tribute to Klein’s 1955 New York pictures.

Random House has also just released a book of Klein’s fashion photography titled “In and Out of Fashion,” and next year the artist hopes to publish a new expanded version of his “New York” book, which, with its grim scenes of post-war America, predated Robert Frank’s celebrated “The Americans” project. “New York” was first published in Paris and London in 1956, but has never before been released in the United States.

Relaxing in blue jeans and a gray pullover at his studio in the Montparnasse district of Paris, Klein notes that for several years during the ‘60s and ‘70s, he gave up still photography to concentrate on filmmaking. During that time he made more than a dozen documentary and fictional films for television and commercial release, all French productions, including an award-winning series of documentaries on Muhammad Ali. He also made the 1966 film “Qui etes-vous, Polly Magoo?” (Who Are You, Polly Magoo?), a farce on the fashion industry. It was to be his farewell to the fashion world (though he has since worked occasional assignments).

“When I stopped, photography was not such a big deal,” he says. “People took photographs, (but) there weren’t shows, there weren’t personal books (monographs), people didn’t sell photographs. There was no dialogue between photographers and the public, and I felt that was frustrating.


“Now things have changed. People are obsessed by the image, and they can read photographs in a different way from what they used to.”

When Klein first published his New York images, he left out more than half of them because they were too radical and difficult to read, even to his own eyes. His work stood in stark contrast to the popular elegant, even poetic, standards set by Cartier-Bresson.

“In the beginning (Cartier-Bresson) resented what I was doing,” Klein says. “I worked against people like him. His idea was the invisible camera. He doesn’t like anybody to take his photograph, he doesn’t like to be seen, he doesn’t like people to see him or react to him.

“I thought it would be good not to hide the fact that you’re taking a photograph, and have people react and come in close and also make a commentary on what’s being photographed: This is a photo, this is my point of view.”

The “New York” project was Klein’s first major statement, done during extended visits to New York after living abroad for seven years. By now, his hometown seemed almost foreign to him.

“I thought it would be a good idea to look at New York with this half-European, half-native eye, and really do something to get back at this city that I thought really gave me a hard time when I grew up.”


Raised by his Hungarian-immigrant parents at the cor ner of 108th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Klein grew up playing stickball and touch football in the street. “I always thought I was going to be an artist,” he says now. “I used to draw, and I would read Russian novels until 3 or 4 in the morning.”

He studied first as a painter and only happened upon photography after making some photographic studies inspired by Mondrian. He became interested in street photography, recording urban life in his confrontational style. At the same time, he was hired by Vogue in the magazine’s effort to recruit promising new artists. (Painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were also approached, although they ultimately never worked for the magazine.) Klein saw the job as a welcome alternative to the usual artist’s plight of chasing down commissions and sales to dealers and collectors.

“I hated that,” he says. “I couldn’t do that at all.”

He found that beyond Richard Avedon and Irving Penn’s photography, little creative work was being done in the fashion field. Clothes didn’t matter to Klein, and as long as they were visible in the pictures, editors allowed the artist nearly free reign. So, instead of fashion cliches with women taking tea, or posing stiffly against Roman pillars, Klein introduced surrealistic elements: Live models mingled among wax figures of Napoleon and Josephine. Women seen through mirrors with telephoto and wide-angle lenses. Such techniques have since become standards in fashion photography.

“I thought it would be funny to use smoke in daylight in really dopey situations with kids playing in the park--and an evening dress. It was so incongruous.

“For me these would be jokes. And the funny thing is, nobody would ask me what I was doing. They didn’t say, ‘Hey, what is this supposed to mean?’ As long as they saw the dress, and the women didn’t turn the pages too fast.”

There were some boundaries--Klein says nearly half of his fashion pictures were censored by editors. One image of a woman with a cigarette was axed because she was “smoking like a sailor,” neither wearing gloves nor using a holder. Another series of portraits of emerging film actresses were cut because of the technique used: Klein had two fans blowing, tossing the hair dramatically, some of it falling in the actresses’ mouths. “ Disgusting !” he was told.

He did find some creative satisfaction through all the experiments. But he adds: “If I didn’t have to earn a living somehow, I would never have taken a fashion photograph in my life.”


A creative restlessness has kept Klein moving from one project to another, one genre to the next. But he is not the type to roam the streets daily with a camera. “I get excited when I have a project and when I have a camera,” Klein explains. “When I don’t I don’t even think about taking photographs.”

He adds: “I stopped taking photographs in the early ‘60s and didn’t start again to be involved in photographs until the ‘80s. Now, in a way, I think I’m going to stop again. I’m really now thinking of doing a movie again. I like the liberty of going from one thing to another.”

* Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 934-2250. Thursday-Jan. 21. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Klein will present a slide lecture with film clips at 7 p.m. on Friday at Art Center College of Design Ahmanson Auditorium, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena.

His film “Qui etes-vous, Polly Magoo” will also be shown Wednesday at the same location. Information: (818) 396-2365.