A maverick in focus

Special to The Times

A boy with the face of a killer points a gun so close it blurs. The photograph seems to capture what is wrong with today’s shocking world. But it is testimony to 1950s New York, and the youngster with the toy gun has been teased by the maverick photographer and filmmaker William Klein -- who ran into some aspiring little street punks one day in 1955 while making his first book of photos -- “to look tough.”

The image is the cover of Klein’s latest book, “Retrospective,” which has been published in France (Marval) to coincide with what is being billed as the most important retrospective of Klein’s work in two decades, at the Pompidou Center through Feb. 20. This wide-ranging show includes documentary and fashion photographs, book covers, film posters and clips and an installation of gigantic painted contact sheets created specifically for the exhibition by the 77-year-old American, who has lived in Paris since 1948.

“Stop it with the boy with the gun,” said the gruffly charming Klein at his grand apartment on the Rue de Medicis, with its million-dollar view of the Luxembourg Gardens. He is tall and wears his longish gray hair tousled, a red bandana tied ascot style peeking out from beneath a charcoal-colored cable-knit sweater, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

“Now, I get phone calls all the time, ‘We are a magazine in Norway and we’re doing a thing on what are our kids coming to...’ ” he said and laughed the soft laugh that interrupts most of his sentences. “I had maybe 30 or 40 covers that were done with that photograph and the headline ‘What are our kids coming to?’ ”


Klein has always been a controversial, provocative photographer, known for a kamikaze street style that resulted in a widely imitated brand of photography that used wide-angle lenses, movement and blur and has created a dynamic and thrilling body of work over the last half century.

In a review of the show, the Paris daily Liberation described him as “an ogre who turns upside down everything he touches.” In the 1981 “William Klein: Photographs,” John Heilpern wrote: “Among modern photographers, it could be that Klein is the joker in the pack. Without formal training, he set out to discover a way of taking pictures -- and invented a prototype.”

Klein, who is much better known outside his native country, has always collaborated in the making of his exhibitions -- for the Pompidou show, with curators Quentin Bajac and Alain Sayag -- blowing up photos and arranging them like movie stills on a wall and otherwise art-directing the experience. “William Klein has conserved his extraordinary vitality,” Sayag writes in the text for “Retrospective,” “whether he is producing a book, a film, a commercial, it’s always the same manner of creating disorder to better get a handle on the ineluctable chaos of our time.”

He designs his own books -- the photos crowded to the edges of both sides of the spine, not carefully perched in the white space. “I always did my layouts and typography for my books,” he said. “But I know really important photographers -- Cartier-Bresson, Salgado -- who choose the photograph or don’t really choose them all, give it to an editor and he puts it together. I think if you don’t do the sequencing and everything, it’s not your book.”


Klein grew up in a poor family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, spent his teenage afternoons hanging out at the Museum of Modern Art, finished City College at 18, and enlisted in the armed forces in 1946. He was sent to Germany, where he did cartoons for Stars and Stripes and oversaw the work of German art historians who were cataloging artwork stolen by the Nazis. “These guys had written books and they knew a million times more than I did, but I was an American soldier and they respected me a lot because I would give them chocolate.”

After six months in Germany, Klein was sent to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. On his second day in the city, he said, a miracle happened.

“I had read a lot of things about Paris and I had toured around trying to find this place that Gide had talked about or whoever,” he said. “I was going down Rue des St. Peres and I saw the most beautiful girl in the world. I said, ‘Can you tell me where the Ecole des Beaux-Arts is?’ And she started explaining and all I was doing was looking at her. Then I said ‘What are you doing tonight?’ and we stayed together for more than 50 years. It was really a miracle. She died 2 1/2 months ago. I still can’t get over it.” The show and the book are dedicated to his late wife, Jeanne, whose naive animal paintings occupy a whole wall of the salon.

In Paris, Klein had a brief spell at the atelier of Fernand Leger; made geometric, abstract, unsentimental paintings; and soon began taking photographs that applied the principles of art but did not aspire to be art photographs.

In 1954, Vogue artistic director Alexander Liberman bankrolled a photographic series on New York, which Klein documented for its poverty and violence and frenetic movement. “His pictures had a violence I’d never experienced in anyone’s work,” Liberman once said. “He went to extremes, which took a combination of great ego and courage.”

Vogue never published the photos, engaging Klein as a fashion photographer instead. No U.S. publisher would touch this frank portrayal of the Big Apple by a native son, but the book became a cult hit when it appeared in 1956 in France. Federico Fellini and Louis Malle invited Klein to work on their films. Books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo followed. Klein became the first photographer to bring the models to the streets for Vogue and subsequently spent two decades making films that include the classic “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” satirizing the media, fashion and television; “Muhammad Ali, the Greatest"; and the anti-Vietnam “Mister Freedom” in 1967. Orson Welles declared his 1958 short, “Broadway by Light,” considered the first pop film, “the first film I’ve ever seen in which color was absolutely necessary.”

In 2002, he produced a book on his adopted city, “Paris + Klein.” In it are black-and-white photos of the 1968 riots, obese bathing beauties, the annual gay pride parade, Chinese New Year celebrations, Africans protesting for green cards -- images that Francophiles may not recognize from their tours of the Crillon and the Louvre. Klein has said that he wanted to show Paris as more than just “a gray city full of white people.”

“It wasn’t romantic or it was kind of vulgar on purpose,” he said of the book. “With all these so-called great photographers -- Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau -- everything is so hunky-dory.” Klein is in many ways the anti-Cartier-Bresson, who he said discouraged an editor from publishing Klein’s first book. “Well, it was the exact opposite of what he did -- very soft and gray,” Klein said. “So I mean I never really had a soft spot for Cartier-Bresson.”


But he once had a soft spot for Cartier-Bresson’s Paris. “When I was a kid, I dreamt of coming to Paris,” Klein said with the practiced spontaneity of one who has recounted a story many times. “I thought I would be a painter, I would come to Paris, I would clap Picasso on the back, and we’d go to the Coupole together. I’d go out with Hemingway, and so on. I had this romantic notion of Paris in the ‘30s and ‘20s and when I came here it was the end of the ‘40s. Paris was kind of dead. It had just been occupied for so long.” But he pointed out that Paris, a city that is purported never to change, is constantly reinventing itself.

“I’m from New York, and New York is supposed to be the Big Apple,” he said. “What have they done as far as architecture’s concerned in the last 30, 40 years? I remember the big hoo-ha about the Seagram Building. Here in Paris, they’ve done a lot of things -- the pyramid, the big arch, the airport. I’m still amazed by the Pompidou -- I think it’s one of the greatest-looking museums in the world.”

And while he may not have hung out with Papa and Pablo, he was neighbors with Man Ray. “He was bitter,” Klein said. “He would say, ‘Look at this Avedon, he photographs famous people. I photograph people who were unknown and became famous later.’ ” He recalled seeing a Man Ray show at the Pompidou a few decades ago. “In America they had never done a big show about Man Ray, then 10 years later the Smithsonian did a show and so on and so forth. Man Ray was considered a quirky expatriate, and he wasn’t taken seriously. Also the photography market was not a Nasdaq like it is today -- everybody is going crazy, and nobody knows how much a photograph is worth. When Man Ray’s estate was sold, a photograph of his went for a million dollars.”

Klein has been doing a lot of reminiscing on the Pompidou retrospective, and on this afternoon, with the December light failing outside the windows and his cat, Einstein, (“She’s a genius; she’s my best friend in the world”) perched in his lap, he said that for the photographer, a photo on a contact sheet is a Proust’s madeleine. “You look at a contact sheet with a magnifying glass and you see a shot, suddenly it all comes back -- that it was a nice day, you wanted a walk, your feet were hurting, you felt that you would hit on something.”

Klein’s current project is a marriage of painting and photography that emerged from a film series he made about taking photos. The giant contacts, painted with bold primary colors, are the last stop at the exhibition and the subject of his next book, which will be out this year.

“I had the camera traveling along a strip of contacts,” he said, “with the photographer explaining why he was choosing this photograph rather than another; the spectator sees that he doesn’t hit the bull’s eye with every shot, which people think. Cartier-Bresson said, ‘If I take one good photograph a month, I’m fine.’ I mean, here’s a guy taking photos for 60 years. But when you see a portfolio of his, you always see the same photographs.”

The cover of “Retrospective” is painted in red to frame the photo perhaps like the barrel of a gun; and he has included two other smaller frames that work like a video clip.

“You can see in the next shot that the kid’s laughing,” Klein said of the frame, which now revealed a normal kid horsing around with his friends. “If you really look at the photograph, it’s a photograph both of them, and me; I was a little tough kid and I was also a little angelic kid scared of some gang down the block.”


But enough about the boy with the gun. “I think the idea of doing a retrospective is good,” Klein said, “because a lot of things you put behind you.”