Trying to Contain William Klein in One Show Isn’t Easy

Trying to Contain William Klein in One Show Isn’t Easy

For 70 years, William Klein, a wildly innovative and influential photographer, has been making pictures, up close and personal, that flout conventions of technique and taste to pack maximum wallop. In “William Klein: YES,” a retrospective that opens June 3 at the International Center of Photography, the first in his native city since a smaller 1994 I.C.P. exhibition, Klein, who is 94, ruled out glass frames for his prints. He wants nothing to come between the image and the spectator.

A man of fabled charm, Klein seeks out vibrant subjects who respond to his own vitality. In one of his best known images, from 1959, a gleeful young Moscow woman clad in an unstylish Soviet bikini, virtually bursts out of the frame. Behind her, sleeping in a beach chair, is an old man, nicely dressed in a summer suit and beret, who might represent the staid, proper style of photography that Klein was thumbing his nose at.

Klein’s photographs thrust the viewer into the action of the city with a rude tug. “Gun 1, New York,” his most famous picture, taken in 1954, shows a fiercely grimacing little boy pointing the barrel of a gun directly at the camera. The hand and weapon (presumably a toy, but that is not discernible) loom large. A younger child watches with adoring admiration. Part of a series of little boys aping cops and robbers, this picture can be said to prophesy our current nightmare of juvenile gun violence. More to the point, it is an image that, seen by itself, carries a queasy-making, nightmarish force.

Klein came to photography and filmmaking by a circuitous route. He moved to Paris on the G.I. Bill to study painting in 1948, finding a place with Fernand Léger. On his second day in the city, he met Jeanne Florin, and decided to stay. They quickly married, a union that lasted until her death in 2005. Like Man Ray, another illustrious New Yorker who began as a painter but made his most important contributions as a photographer, Klein transplanted easily to Paris, befriending the city’s artistic vanguard. A position of ongoing dislocation suits him.

His first significant efforts in photography, as seen in “Moving Diamonds,” in 1952, generated the sort of abstract shapes that dominated painting at that time. He captured the blur of painted panels spun in rotation, and he manipulated light to create photograms without the use of a camera. On a trip to Zeeland in the Netherlands, where the family of his half-Flemish wife owned property, he photographed barn facades that he printed high-contrast; in their geometric divisions, they recall the paintings of Piet Mondrian, who once lived in that region.

Interesting, but not revolutionary.

His breakthrough came in 1954 on a trip back to New York, where the art director of Vogue had invited him to contribute photographs. After six years away, Klein devoured the city. He frequently shot with a wide-angle lens, which alters and intensifies perspective, particularly at the close range he favored. Other times, he used a telephoto lens to flatten perspective. In low light, he lengthened the exposure, welcoming the fuzziness. And when he developed and printed in the darkroom, he tinkered experimentally and intuitively. He admitted no rules, understanding from the outset that a photograph is not primarily a rendition of some external reality but a material object that stands on its own.

He composed a book about New York with the propulsive syncopation of a jazz musician, trawling the city from Black churches in Harlem to society balls at the Waldorf. He cropped his prints radically and varied the dimensions of the pictures from a thumbnail to a two-page spread, in layouts that subordinate the remarkable individual images to the dynamic rhythm of the book. (The prints in the I.C.P. exhibition follow the Kleinian aesthetic, jumping around in different sizes and formats.)

When “Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels” appeared in 1955 — without an American publisher, it was issued first in Paris and then in London and Milan — it was unlike anything that preceded it. Robert Frank’s iconic “The Americans,” released in France three years later, extended a tradition laid out by Walker Evans’s “American Photographs” in 1938. Klein’s book exploded with the vulgar purity of a tabloid headline. Indeed, the subtitle is Klein’s riff on a phrase in one such headline: “Chance Witness Reveals.”

In the years that followed, he produced dazzling photographic books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo. This hot streak, from 1955 to 1961, is the high-water mark of his career. He had an exceptional affinity for Rome, where, despite lacking prior knowledge of the city, he won accolades from well-informed habitués, including Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, who extolled the perceptiveness of his portrait. Rome was his kind of place. “In Rome, due to the housing shortage, people live more in the streets than at home,” he wrote in the text. “The street is thought of as a theater. At home nobody sees you; in the street you have an audience.”

Klein is always attuned to everyday performance. In a memorable Moscow image of “the Russian Sarah Bernhardt” being helped into a car, the grande dame is palpably role-acting the part of a distinguished old person in need of physical assistance, while an appreciative audience on the street is visible in the reflection of the automobile window.

The distinctiveness of Klein’s vision becomes apparent when his photographs are contrasted with similar ones. “Tramway, Capellona, Rome 1956” portrays passengers gazing out the windows of a streetcar, very much like those in Frank’s “Trolley — New Orleans,” shot (unbeknown to Klein) the year before. But whereas Frank’s riders are staring at nothing we can see, Klein’s are spectators of a show we share, watching a stylish woman striding down the street.

And while Klein’s shot of superimposed ripped film posters in Tokyo in 1961 brings to mind Walker Evans’s “Torn Movie Poster,” made 30 years before, the earlier picture vibrates with undertones of violence and horror; Klein’s photo superimposes the eyes of two Japanese women in an evocation of demure femininity.

Klein supported his family mainly through fashion work, pushing the boundaries as far as he could. For a shoot on the Lower East Side, he posed two elegant models in front of an abandoned storefront that he had painted mauve. As an impulsive addition, he asked a Black man dressed all in white and working nearby, to sit in the window. When Vogue ran the picture, the editors cropped out the fashion disrupter.

At the same time that he was producing books and fashion shoots, Klein was making movies. The I.C.P. curator David Campany, who organized the exhibition, has highlighted his output as a filmmaker, running a continuous loop of Klein’s first movie, “Broadway by Light” (1958), an 11-minute color rhapsody on the signage of Times Square. Elsewhere on view are excerpts from “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?,” Klein’s feature film about the modeling business, by turns mordant and whimsical, as well as movies that explore Black life and culture, one of his persistent subjects, in depictions of Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, Little Richard and Pan-African Day in Algiers.

If there is any fault to be found in this exuberant, eye-opening show, it is that the modest confines of the I.C.P. are too small to contain Klein’s oversize achievement. Unlike most street photographers, who lose energy and ingenuity after a few years, Klein has enjoyed an extraordinary run. His photograph of aristocrats scarfing down lunch at an outdoor Parisian event in 2000 is as compelling as (and formally quite similar to) his picture of the same sort of crowd at the Longchamp Racecourse in 1963. He continues to deliver, straight up, a passionate and immediate engagement with the world.

In particular, for this critic, more pictures on the wall from Tokyo and Rome would have been welcome (although, helpfully, instead of displaying the rare out-of-print city books inertly in vitrines, Campany exhibits them as videos that show the contents page by page). Klein’s hunger for life is infectious. Any retrospective of this groundbreaking artist would leave you wanting more.

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Last Update: Thu, 02 Jun 22 09:03:06