William Klein, the visual artist who revolutionized photography with satirical fashion shoots and a masterful conduction of the restless, electric energy of cities, died on Saturday in Paris at 96.
His death came during the final days of a survey at New York’s International Center of Photography, which explored—and honored—the innovations of his 60-year-career.
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Klein was one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century, though his exuberant oeuvre spanned painting, sculpture, feature film, and documentary. In an era where Minimalism ruled, he followed an ethos of maximum humanity—all the exuberance, violence, and off-beat beauty a city contains.
He flouted the conventions of photography, using high-contrast black and white, wide-angle lenses, and overexposed negatives, so even still subjects appeared in motion. His specialty was spontaneous portraiture, like two of his most famous works: a 1959 image of a Moscow woman in a bikini so vital she could burst from the print, and the earlier “Gun 1, New York” from 1954 that depicts a snarling boy aiming a revolver at the viewer. Another child stares at him with an adoring expression. Klein called it a double self-portrait.
Surely unsettling viewing at the time, it’s nauseating amid today’s gun epidemic, as if Klein’s camera could peer into the future. He was interested in normal people, but also those with influence, like Mohammed Ali and the Black Panther leader and writer Eldridge Cleaver, both of whom were portrayed in his documentaries.
Klein was born in Manhattan in 1928. By 1948, he was studying painting and sculpture at the Sorbonne thanks to the GI Bill. Fernand Léger was briefly his mentor, but Klein’s relationship with conventional education was brief. Léger reportedly told Klein: “Get out of the galleries. Look at buildings; go out onto the street.”
It was good advice, as Klein became one of the fathers of street photography. In the ’50s and ’60s, Klein began his opus: a series of sensational photo books of New York, Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo that shocked readers with their raw slices of urban life. The first book, titled ““Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels” was released in 1955.
The images were developed dark and blurry, with faces blurring into the next so crowds crashed through pages like black-and-white waves. Some critics called it anguished and unsettling.
“They just didn’t get it,” Klein told the Observer in 2012. “They thought it should not have been published, that it was vulgar and somehow sinned against the great sacred tradition of the photography book. They were annoyed for sure.”
He was a staff photographer for Vogue for a decade, during which he flouted the staid conventions of couture and even challenged segregation. For one street shoot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he posed two stylishly dressed white models in front of a disused barbershop that he painted bubble-gum pink. On a whim, he invited a Black man, dressed in a white suit, to pose next to the models in the storefront’s window. The man was cropped out by Vogue’ editors in the published version. He submitted fuzzy photos and wide-angle lens shots and cheeky compositions—often elegantly-outfitted models caught in city grit—like a decade-long game of chicken with Vogue.
During that time he began making films, the first of which was “Broadway by Light”, an 11-minute visual ode to the neon signage of Times Square. The ICP survey’s curator, David Campany, ran a loop of the film during the survey. Clips from Klein’s feature film “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?,” a wry breakdown of the modeling business, played elsewhere in the show, as well as excerpts from his movies on history-defining moments and figures from mid-century Black life and culture.
In a review of Klein’s work in the International Herald in 1996, Katherine Knorr wrote, “He showed us long before so many contemporary American movies how America is often seen through a windshield, how its cities are kaleidoscopes of flashing neon, from the sublime to the breakfast special.”