William Klein is considered on of the most influential photographers of all time. During the 50’s and 60’s he created a name for himself in both street and fashion photography. Nobody had seen anything quite like him before.
As Klein stated in an interview, “I came from the outside, the rules of photography didn’t interest me. There were things you could do with a camera that you couldn’t do with any other medium—grain, contrast, blur, cock-eyed framing, eliminating or exaggerating grey tones and so on.” “I thought it would be good to show what’s possible, to say that this is as valid of a way of using the camera as conventional approaches.” The results were considered almost revolutionary, in their time.
What’s even more remarkable is that Klein never had any formal training. At least not in photography. He actually intended to be a painter. In 1948 he enrolled in the extremely competitive Sorbonne, in Paris. His style was abstract. Something he further refined by studying with influential painter, Fernand Leger. However, it was always the camera which seemed to fascinate him.
During a brief trip back to his America, he put his theories on photography to the test. The result was NEW YORK, a groundbreaking collection of images, first published in 1956.
It was radically different than anyone had shot life in the city before. Many hated it. But even more understood how important NEW YORK was. Street photography would never be the same again.
Success quickly followed. He won the Prix Nadar in 1957. He was also hired by VOGUE magazine. It was a period which produced some of his most compelling commercial work.
He continued to balance fashion photography with street photography and created monographs of other cities including Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo. The later proved to be particularly influential on a group of young Japanese photographers that included Daido Moriyama.
Klein, briefly, turned his interests away from photography and more toward filmmaking. In 1966, he directed the feature “WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?,” a satire of the fashion industry. He followed it up with the films THE MODEL COUPLE and MR. FREEDOM. None of them are very good. Yet, they remain interesting records of Klein’s visual style.
Klein had more success working in documentary filmmaking and also made a good living as a producer of television commercials. However, it will always be his photography that he is best known for.
Groundbreaking, energetic, often humorous, Klein is considered “one of the fathers of street photography.” Yet, Klein’s work was even more than that. His two worlds of street imagery and fashion seemed to influence and bounce up against each other in fascinating ways. The result is a body of work unique to him, and him alone. A statement to the brilliance of William Klein.