American photographer William Klein, an icon of street photography, died at the age of 96

The American William Klein, who revolutionized street photography and fashion photography, as well as a film director, painter and graphic designer, died on Monday, September 12 at the age of 96 in Paris, where he had lived since 1947.

William Klein, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, was born on April 19, 1928 in New York City and grew up in the suburbs of Harlem. He wants to be a painter and is already dreaming of Paris.”meet Hemingway at the Ritz and Giacometti at the Coupola”he confided Relax April 16, 2002. During his military service, he discovered Europe, where he was part of the occupation forces in Germany after the war. In the army, he buys a Rolleiflex with a poker win. Thanks to a scholarship, he arrived in Paris in 1947, became interested in abstract painting and visited the studio of Fernand Léger.

William Klein was invited in 1953 to create abstract paintings to decorate the corridors of the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. His paintings inspire him to make abstract photographs, but he does not yet consider photography becoming his job. It was in 1954 when he returned to New York and his life changed. Alexander Libermann, the art director of Vogue, loves his photos and hires him to take fashion photos.

“Fashion gave me extraordinary means: multiple flashes, sets, assistants… I could try new techniques, which I then used for my personal work. I was not interested. And designers even less.”he said Telerama Sep 23, 2011. But he revolutionized fashion photography by taking the models out into the street, connecting them with passers-by, playing off their silhouettes with the city’s graphics.

A retrospective exhibition of photographer William Klein at the Center Pompidou Beaubourg on December 6, 2005 in Paris (PIERRE VERDY / AFP)

At the same time, he is working on a personal project of a photographic “diary” in the streets of New York. “I’ve always hated pictorialist photography, fog, drapery effects, crappy staging. I wasn’t convinced by the sentimental, humanistic, nostalgic and clean photography that dominated the early 90s. 1950s. I wanted to shake things up. I had to stay as far away from art photography as possible.”he said The world May 5, 2002.

In the streets of New York, William Klein gets as close as possible to the people he captures from a wide angle, distorting his subjects with movement effects. In print, it forces grain, contrasts. His bold frames express all the energy of a turbulent, chaotic, moving city, which he looks at fresh. Americans are not interested in this job. It was in Paris that the first edition took place New York (Where Life is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels), in Le Seuil, thanks to the support of director, writer and photographer Chris Marker. This book, which was to become a monument in the history of photography, was then published in the UK, Italy and Japan. In 1957, it won him the Nadar Prize.

Exposure "New York" William Klein at the museum in Palencia, Spain, June 13, 2021 (JOAQUIN GOMEZ SASTR / NURPHOTO)

William Klein will then work in the streets of Rome (1958), Moscow (1964), Tokyo (1964), but history was marked by his works about New York. Much later, in 2002, he dedicated a book (Paris + KleinMarval) and an exhibition in Paris, the city he dreamed of as a teenager, which he adopted, which he sees “multi-ethnic and colorful” and in color (The world, May 5, 2002). “My photography is close to the brothel of the street, it goes in all directions. Only in the demo can I connect so many “faces”, multiply combinations and organize this chaos”he said then.

William Klein has also directed numerous commercials as well as approximately twenty feature films, shorts, mid-lengths and feature films. In the first, Broadway by Light (1958), plays with color with lights and signs in Times Square, New York. The most famous will undoubtedly remain Who are you Polly Maggoo? (1967), a satire on the world of fashion and show business. He also dedicated the film to Muhammad Ali, the great boxing champion and activist for the black cause, who refused to go fight in Vietnam and whom he followed for ten years. Next to black activist Eldridge Cleaver (Eldridge Cleaver Black Panther1969), or rock legend Little Richard (The Story of Little Richard, 1980).

Since the late 1980s, he has mixed painting and photography by creating “painted contacts”: fragments of enlarged contact sheets, which he decorated with strokes of paint in bright colors, yellow, red, blue.

In 1989, he came up with the idea for the series contacts on Arta, short thirteen-minute programs in which photographers are invited to talk about their work from their contact sheets, their prints or slides.

William Klein had numerous personal exhibitions in prestigious institutions around the world, at the Center Pompidou (1983, 2005), at MoMA in New York (1980), at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne (1988), at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (1995), at Rencontres d’Arles (1978, 1982, 2016), at Tate Modern in London (2012)…

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