The Many Lives of William Klein

Last night I watched Imagine…The Many Lives of William Klein (2012) (see end of post for video) BBC documentary on one of the world’s most influential photographers and a pioneer of street photography.

Although I was familiar with Klein’s name since I started the course, I knew very little about him or his work, so when the television programme was advertised, I remembered his name and hit record!

I have a great interest in street photography but have undertaken much less due to time restraints since starting college. It’s a great area of photography while on holiday as you feel less self-conscious and feel that you blend in more with other tourists. Plus, you have plenty of time!

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Images by me, With a Squinty Eye

One of the reasons I enjoy street photography is that you can’t see ahead or plan your actual subject matter. You can expect the unexpected and for me, that’s the joy.

I often wait for ‘something to happen’ but truthfully, there is always something to photograph while out on the streets. It can be difficult to think of the ordinary as worthy of recording but sometimes the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

Personally, the negative aspects of street photography for me include the above ‘waiting’ mentality and my own insecurities and equally, you need to be somewhat fearless and street savvy to practice this genre.

What I initially found interesting about Klein was, not unlike Anton Corbijn, he initially used his camera as a crutch or as a comfort object. Klein visited and documented Harlem, New York, in the 1950s, a place and time when Caucasians were seldom seen. He himself was Jewish living in an Irish neighbourhood of New York. Klein’s camera was almost like a license to walk around Harlem while Corbjijn brought a camera to live music gigs, almost as a partner or friend to accompany him, providing ‘an excuse’ to get close to his subjects.

Klein even bought a camera from Henri Cartier-Bresson but where Cartier-Bresson’s kept his distance, like a ghost, Klein approached his subjects close and personal. He was interested in New York’s grittiness, the chaos and the children who played on the streets.

Photo Credit

In later years, Klein cast a satirical eye on New York and represented the consumerist, selling environment. He was also looking for both a warmth and edge in his representations of the city.

It is quite clear to me, as Klein confirmed in the documentary, that his subjects were, by and large, complicit in many of his street photographs and they were eager to pose by his own admission.

His honest, gritty images were not published in the USA at the time and when he returned to Paris where he had moved to after his service in WWII, he undertook fashion photography for Vogue magazine.

In this area of work, he employed mirrors and various darkroom techniques (or ‘trickery’ as Klein describes it in the documentary) but he was not enamoured with this photographic genre. He missed the captured moments of street photography and the images that he could not control unlike planned fashion shoots with team of stylists and makeup artists around him. He fell out of favour with Vogue when he became politicised in the 1960s,  ultimately losing his contract and regular payment from the magazine, which he had primarily lived off for years!

His tight, organised frames give the impression that a lot of his were taken spontaneously,  as if he turned on his heels and pressed the shutter button. This is not the case however,  as he had a wealth of technical awareness. At times, he would aim a wide-angle lens at his willing subject who would delight in being the centre of attention and of the image, not knowing that he would be including more of the background into the frame. Of course, the subjects in the mid and background would also be unaware that they were being photographed. The following image is a good example:

Photo Credit

His images look like film stills and as he later moved to movie work, you could imagine that if you froze any frame, it would look like one of his still shots. This same thought occurred to in relation to Anton Corbijn after seeing his Ian Curtis biographical film, Control (2007). The movie has the same aesthetic as Corbijn’s photography, though he said otherwise in Inside Out!

(Above) Still from Control: Directed by Anton Corbijn | photo credit

I also enjoyed researching Klein because of his personality, which hasn’t diminished in his 84 years. He remains fiercely independent and constantly revisits his work.

In recent years he has taken to painting his contact sheets, which have been displayed in a spectacular scale in a Tate Modern exhibition.

Vogue magazine published Smoke + Veil, Paris (Vogue) 1958, word wide, except in the US, where a model (in this instance Evelyn Tripp) was photographed smoking a cigarette without a cigarette holder, without gloves notwithstanding the fact that she was ‘smoking like a sailor’ (Klein, W. 2012), all of which was seen as inappropriate. The fashion shot was actually to model the hat worn by Tripp.

Smoke + Veil, Paris (Vogue) 1958 | photo credit

Klein helped shaped the art of 20th century photography and still takes a camera with him everywhere. Aged 84, his passion and determination to do things his way remains.

Imagine…The Many Lives of William Klein (2012) BBC One, 20 November, 22.35 hrs.


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