“I have always done the opposite of what I was trained to do… Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”
If anything can sum up William Klein in a quote then this is it. For a lot of people he is what modern street photography has become, dirty, gritty, gutter lined, stomach churning, middle finger flipping outrage. But there’s another side to Klein, the one which developed him, which created him, and which ultimately destroyed him. The unfashionable Klein.
William Klein was born on April 19th, 1928, New York, to an immigrant family. His parents, hard workers, had done well, and he lived his first year in a very good neighbourhood, and until the stock market crash of 1929, he would have needed for nothing. However, his father, like a lot of people, lost nearly everything gambling on shares, and so they upped sticks and moved to a place which was just a stone throw away from Harlem. Here the young man was to grow up quick.
He did his military service in Europe after the war then returned to Paris with very little money. He joined the Sorbonne, enrolling in 1948. Here he studied art and had two exhibitions, showing he was very much a modern artist who focussed mainly on lines. He worked with architects, promoting their designs, and came in contact with people from Vogue which helped him decide to move in to photography. He was never formally trained.
He was someone who never played by the rules and after getting an award in 1957 started to focus on Fashion Photography. He was a budding director too, and here he showed his disgust at American Commercialism, while ironically raking in a pay check from one of it’s central contractors. However, in 1966 he would cross a line with Vogue and fashion he would never recover from.
To a lot of people today ‘Who are you, Polly Magoo?’ is an iconic film, but in it’s day it was too spiteful for Vogue to ignore. Klein directed the piece which was considered a side swipe at the fashion industry, and one of it’s main players, his boss the formidable Editor of Vogue New York, Diana Vreeland. She of the memo “Today let’s think pig white! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have stockings that were pig white! The color of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink!”
After this he would go on to direct 250 TV adverts, and a great piece on Ali when no one really knew him. Klein is a great man to talk to everyone and he got the Ali gig this way too. He was on a flight, and although he didn’t have much money, this flight had open seats so he asked a gentleman if he could sit beside him. The man said no problem. He turned out to be Malcolm X. Due to this chance encounter Klein was allowed to meet Ali and from there the documentary was made.
Although he was bitter about how things ended with Vogue, it allowed Klein to experiment and do what he wanted. This is something you can take from a great creator, the ability to think outside the box. He still takes pictures, with a Nikon and probably a Leica.
Camera: He used a camera which was given to him by Bresson, so he used a Leica and Nikon and probably others. Famous for wide angles and telephoto lens. He was one photographer, along with Bresson who proved it’s not the camera which matters
Where they worked: Paris and New York mainly but everywhere for Fashion photography
Strengths: Never constrained by rules. Took on the establishment and didn’t care if an image was blurred or not. One of the great Fashion photographers, maybe the best
Weaknesses: Some images make no sense due to there being no reason for them, too blurred or just a click. Can be a bit too contemporary and always tries to change a photo which has been changed many times before. Redevelopment
Quote: “Sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened. I’d rush into crowds—bang! bang! … It must be close to what a fighter feels after jabbing and circling and getting hit, when suddenly there’s an opening, and bang! Right on the button. It’s a fantastic feeling.”