Text by John Heilpern, profile from William Klein: Photographs
"William Klein's pictures, like Klein himself, never quite seemed to belong. Perhaps in his dreams he secretly wanted them to, feeling it unjust that his work hadn't been widely enough recognized. Yet his pictures, which began as a furious protest against the establishment, influenced a whole generation of photographers, and the assumed cockiness of the man would disguise what bitterness he felt, for he took some pleasure in remaining an outsider.
"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. A nonconformist, a displaced person, he says with wariness now that he once believed in John Cage's dictum that every spectator is always in the best seat.
"In his apparently raw and chaotic pictures what is meaningful might be found anywhere and what's really happening can be in the background, half hidden.
"And like the work, the man can seem wayward - a wayward improvisation without (it seems) a center. "Anything goes", Klein likes to say. He is a man of enormous talent and enormous defensiveness. At times he can remind you of the middle-aged hip photographer portrayed by Dennis Hopper in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now - a'60s figure, egotistical, and maddening. At other times, he can appear so boyish and enthusiastic, particularly about photography, that he seems more like Luke Skywalker going "Gee whiz!" at what the world contains. Both images of him, like any image, can prove deceptive.
"At the center of Klein's work can be found an unexpected seriousness that virtually amounts to a declaration of faith. Klein succeeded in changing photography. Part of his talent was in showing us what the possibilities of a photograph could be. The root and heart of his work, from his early paintings and graphic designs to photography and films, reveal his fascination with the image of the city life and dream-nightmare around him - images that he first captured with a camera as if he were in a trance.
"In many ways the reputation of Klein, an American living in Paris, is similar to that of the highly regarded Robert Frank, a European living in America. It's now largely forgotten that Frank's classic work, The Americans, was dismissed at first by most critics and intellectuals. Klein's book New York, which established his reputation in Europe, has never been published in America.
"Klein returned to the United States from his adopted country, France, for eight months in 1954-1955, publishing New York in 1956. Frank, a Swiss expatriate, traveled through America in 1955 and 1956, publishing The Americans in 1958. In different ways, both men rebelled against the consciously elegant and beautiful. Both took a tough look at America - though Frank was wry and could be distant, whereas Klein was violent and personal. Frank used mostly one camera, one lens, one technique; Klein experimented with flash, wide-angle, grab shots, abstraction, blur, close-up, accidents, deformations, harsh printing, special layouts, and inking. Frank was concerned with showing America as never before, Klein with ways of showing it as never before.
"Both men were later to abandon photography for films, as if photography had become an outdated profession, like pearl diving.
"One of the ironies of Klein's career is that it was glossy Vogue magazine that helped to finance his so-called barbaric New York pictures (though Vogue didn't publish them). While Klein was photographing New York, he began a decade of work taking glamorous but innovative fashion pictures for Vogue. Only photographers, it seems, can move with ease between salon and slum and battlefield. Just as Klein's pictures rarely include a still life, his own life and variable career were often on the move - sometimes for the better, at other times to the point of self-destruction.
"He has a knack of offending people, particularly those who might help him. He possesses a breezy combination of principle and opportunism. A maverick by nature, Klein puts up a show of taking the rough with the smooth, as if to take life and the tangled subject of photography too seriously would be to betray the street-wise image he likes to project. "Photography - it's no big deal," he likes to say in his flip way, while giving the impression of half hoping that he's wrong. It isn't that he is frivolous about photography. He prefers to demystify it, which is refreshing.
"His pictures were first criticized as the rough work of an amateur street photographer- yet his deliberate anti-technique has in itself become adopted as a technique, and the pictures, far from being amateur, are rooted in Klein's early artistic training in France with Fernand Léger, the first painter to confront modern urban reality.
"In the 1950s I couldn't find an American publisher for my New York pictures," he says. "Everyone I showed them to said, 'Ech! This isn't New York - too ugly, too seedy, too onesided.' They said, 'This isn't photography, this is shit' " Even today, when Manhattan is frequently romanticized on film, Klein's pictures strike some as too violent (although no one could claim that New York isn't violent). In fact, Klein never photographed violence in the way that Weegee did. Violence is to be found less in Klein's subjects, more in the way he photographed them.
"In New York, lumps of human flesh form another bleak skyline. In Rome, macho youngsters pose like athletes, soldiers, senators, and rams. In Moscow, a brazen girl in a bikini beams as an older generation of Chekhovian figures behind her begins to die. In Tokyo, a child sits in the arms of a giant Buddha -a junior Buddha, pulling a face. Faces grimace; three blurred cigarettes stutter out of a guest's mouth; a parade watcher perches on an invisible fire hydrant, his head severed by the sun; people mourn for their lives; children, a blur, dance in twilight."
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