Innovative street and fashion photographer William Klein dies at 96

William Klein, an American expatriate photographer whose often frenetic and sometimes blurry images of urban street life and modern fashion were hugely innovative while conveying the sharp social critique of a self-proclaimed outsider, died September 10 in Paris. He was 96 years old.

His nephew Larry Reichman confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

From his early years, Mr. Klein said, he was used to seeing the world as a perpetual stranger. He grew up in Depression-era Manhattan, a Jewish boy in a largely Irish neighborhood where he endured poverty and anti-Semitic bullying. Autonomy and a quick eye on one’s surroundings were means of survival – as was art. At 12, he began spending weekends wandering around the Museum of Modern Art, where his own work would one day be exhibited.

After his military service, he moved to France in the late 1940s to study painting. But he is very quickly captivated by photography when he realizes how playing with exposures can form, with infinite possibilities, a new genre of abstract art. The vibrant blurs he created were a revelation, he said, of the mood he felt swirling around him and his view of the world in general: its grit, its vibrancy, its splendor, its grotesque.

He proudly distanced himself from any school or method as he rose to prominence in the post-war years, favoring raw instinct over any established technique.

“I come from outside, the rules of photography didn’t interest me”, he once said. “There were things you could do with a camera that you couldn’t do with any other medium: grain, contrast, blurring, skew framing, eliminating or exaggerating gray tones, etc. I thought it would be good to show what is possible, to say that this is as valid a way of using the camera as conventional approaches.

Famous Vogue art director Alexander Liberman, who said he saw Mr. Klein as “a marvelous iconoclastic talent”, signed him to the fashion magazine from 1955 to 1965. Mr. Klein came up with radically original images which incorporated the blur, flash lighting, high-contrast impression, and eerie perspectives afforded by wide-angle and telephoto lenses.

“These were probably the most unpopular fashion photographs Vogue had ever published,” Klein told the Observer.

While living on Vogue’s allowance, he embarked on a personal project: a series of photographs taken in the streets of New York with the same techniques he applied to fashion. Through Mr. Klein’s lens, the streets revealed a messy modern world alive with action and opportunity, but also teeming with hostility.

Rejected by Vogue and by American book publishers, the images were published in an idiosyncratic tabloid-style book. Its full title, “Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels”, was a collage of tabloid headlines.

“New York”, as the book became commonly known, was published in France in 1956 but not in America. Like Robert Frank’s landmark photographic volume, “The Americans” (1959), Klein’s book takes a piercing look at the myth of the American dream at the height of the Cold War. Mr Klein called it “my rant against America”.

Although many American art and photography critics disapproved of Mr. Klein’s style it was accused of “cheap sensational photography” – the book proved to be lastingly influential. In 1992, photography historian and critic Vicki Goldberg described Mr. Klein in the New York Times as a born rule-breaker who “played a major role in codifying a new perspective” in the visual arts.

He often used a wide-angle lens to include faces in the periphery of the frame or a telephoto lens to condense figures near and far, and he photographed his subjects before they were fully aware of his presence. He used the developing process to create high contrast and other poster effects, and he often cropped the results.

The most reproduced image from Mr. Klein’s book, known as “Gun 1”, shows a young boy with a tense and angry expression pointing a gun at the photographer, inches from the lens. An angelic-looking little boy seems to be trying to restrain his companion by putting a hand on his sleeve. The boys were playing, Mr. Klein explained, but nonetheless seemed to embody the emotional drama of city life.

“New York” was a multicultural tour de force, featuring many black and immigrant faces. The telephoto shot known as ‘4 heads, New York’ is in a single frame, Klein says, Italian police officer, Hispanic man, Jewish mother and an African American woman wearing a beret.

The design of the book was wildly experimental. Some photographs bleed from the edges of the page; others are grouped into grids. The volume included a loosely bound 16-page booklet containing captions for the images and a reproduction of a Mad magazine cover, ersatz advertisements for spaghetti and bras, and other ephemera. This apparent critique of creeping commercialism predates Andy Warhol’s pop art.

Mr. Klein called his work “pseudo-ethnographic, parodic, Dada,” the latter referring to a playful and absurd art movement of the early 20th century. He continued to photograph other cities – Rome, Moscow, Tokyo – while pursuing filmmaking, forming his lens on people who, like himself, had challenged the cultural mainstream.

His subjects included boxer Muhammad Ali, Black Panther frontman Eldridge Cleaver, and rock and roll pioneer Little Richard. In addition to his documentaries, Mr. Klein has created French-language feature films, including the fashion world parody “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1966) and the comedy “Mr. Freedom” (1968), about a superhero who uses his powers to strengthen American industrial and military imperialism.

Despite his prodigious production for more than 70 years, Mr. Klein never achieved the recognition in his native country enjoyed by peers such as Frank and Richard Avedon. The explanation lies partly in its absence. But his streak of independence also helped undermine his relationships with publishers, art directors and curators. It would be decades before his work was the subject of major exhibitions in the United States.

Mr Klein said he remained an “outsider” even in his adopted country, always the outside observer ready to see the complexities under the spell of the surface. His 2002 book “Paris + Klein” – showing Rubenian women in a Turkish bath, protesters of African descent demanding their rights, Chinese New Year celebrations – rejected the romanticized view of the City of Light.

William Klein was born in Manhattan on April 19, 1926. His father was a tailor who owned a clothing store but lost it in the stock market crash of 1929; his mother was a housewife.

A precocious student, he graduated from high school at age 14 and enrolled at the City College of New York. He left in 1946 to enlist in the army. While stationed in Allied-occupied Germany, he became a cartoonist for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and, on his own, won his first camera, a professional-grade Rolleiflex, at a a game of poker on the base.

Upon his release in 1948, he moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne and studied under the painter Fernand Léger. A few years later, abstract photographs he had taken for the architecture magazine Domus were seen by Liberman, who brought him back to New York to work for Vogue.

Mr Klein married Jeanne Florin (also known as Janine) after spotting her on the Left Bank his first week in Paris. She worked briefly as a model and later managed her husband’s schedule. She died in 2005. Survivors include a son, Pierre Klein, and a sister.

Mr. Klein’s first film was “Broadway by Light” (1958), an abstract celebration of the neon nights of Times Square. While continuing to work in film, Mr. Klein returned to still photography in the 1980s, as a market for fine art photographs developed and his early work was discovered by a new generation of street photographers.

Major institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London have organized retrospectives of his output. The New York-based International Center of Photography presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

When the Center Pompidou in Paris opened a major exhibition of his work, Mr. Klein told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that his most reproduced image – the boy with the gun – had been misunderstood for decades.

“Now I get phone calls all the time, ‘We’re a magazine in Norway and we’re doing something about where our kids come from,'” he said. “I had maybe 30 or 40 covers that were done with this photo and the title, ‘What are our kids coming to do?’ ”

The children depicted in the photo, he added, expressed two aspects of his own personality.

“You can see in the next shot that the child is laughing,” Klein said. “If you really look at the picture, it’s a picture of them and me; I was a tough little boy and I was also an angelic little boy scared of a street corner gang.

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