American photographer William Klein dies, leaves behind a legacy

As the iconic photographer passes away, we reflect on his recent work at ICP, NY - William Klein: YES - his life as an artist, his career as a photographer, and the impact he made.

by Vatsala SethiPublished on : Sep 21, 2022

Queen Elizabeth II passed away in Scotland on September 8, 2022, at the age of 96. Two days later, on September 10, famed photographer William Klein also took his last breath at the age of 96 in Paris. Just as Klein’s retrospective exhibition, William Klein: YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948–2013, at the International Center of Photography (ICP), was about to wrap up, the artist left this world. In honour of the artist, ICP extended the exhibition by three days, exhibiting approximately 300 works from Klein's wide and boundary-pushing six-decade career, filling ICP's galleries with photos, paintings, videos, photo books, and other media. Analysing the artist's life and works in chronological order, the exhibition demonstrated his progress as an artist and allowed the links between his many approaches to become clear. Klein's work on display included wildly inventive photographic studies of New York, Rome, Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo; bold and witty fashion photographs; camera-less abstract photography to iconic celebrity portraits; excerpts from documentary films about Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Pan-African Festival of Algiers, as well as scripted films about the beauty industry, imperialism, and consumer culture.

Antonia and Yellow Taxi, New York, 1962, Image, William Klein | William Klein | STIRworld
Antonia and Yellow Taxi, New York, 1962, Image Image: © William Klein; Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery

“I went to town and photographed non-stop, with literally, vengeance,” William Klein had said about his collection of New York City’s street photography from 1954 and 1955, as stated by The New Yorker.

Nina and Simone, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, 1960, Image, William Klein  | William Klein | STIRworld
Nina and Simone, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, 1960, Image Image: © William Klein, Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery

The American artist juggled several lives during decades of incredible creation - working as a painter, street photographer, fashion photographer, designer, bookmaker, writer, documentary filmmaker, and fiction filmmaker. In every sense, he was a visionary, ignoring the social and aesthetic attitudes of the day to carve a distinctive route in his commercial work, personal initiatives, and across all mediums. He created innumerable opportunities for future image creators throughout the world by being innovative and uncompromising. Born on April 19, 1926, on the outskirts of Harlem, Klein fell in love with the art of the European avant garde that he witnessed in the city's museums. He spent two years in Germany as part of an Allied military rehabilitation operation in 1940s. He also worked as a radio operator, on horseback. Klein’s artistic career began as a painter in post-war Paris, which he called home for the rest of his life. Klein also studied in the legendary artist Fernand Léger's workshop. His arresting abstract photos have graced the pages of design journals like Domus, as well as books and music LPs. In 1954, he was called back to New York by Alexander Liberman, the art director of Vogue (US). No fashion expertise, but Liberman saw in him an incomparably powerful vision, a desire to explore, and an unusual talent for visual problem-solving.

Backstage “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?,” 1966, Image | William Klein | STIRworld
Backstage “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?,” 1966, Image Image: © William Klein, Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein was realistic about his fashion career. "I accepted the obligation of showing the clothes. Sharp, all the buttons, pleats, and whatever. As long as I did that, I found I could do pretty much what I wanted with the rest – backgrounds, attitudes, situations… Whatever, I guess the editors didn’t care as long as the reader didn’t flip the page too fast," mentioned the official statement released by ICP.

Independence Day Parade, Dakar, 1963, Image, William Klein | William Klein | STIRworld
Independence Day Parade, Dakar, 1963, Image Image: © William Klein, Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery

Revitalising fashion photography by creating scores of classic photos that were full of ironic play and bold technique, Klein was breaking every norm to revolutionise street photography with his love for Dada and pop art in all its roughness and excitement on the streets of New York. His portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, Pelé, and Pharrell Williams from the early 2000s are among the best-loved of his works.

Untitled (Moving Diamonds on Yellow), ca. 1952, Image, William Klein | William Klein | STIRworld
Untitled (Moving Diamonds on Yellow), ca. 1952, Image Image: © William Klein, Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery

Expanding his art practise to video format, Klein began to make movies at the suggestion of his friend Chris Marker, eventually directing over 30 documentaries on subjects ranging from the boxer Cassius Clay (1964/69), the Pan African Festival of Algiers (1969), and the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver (1970), to late 1960s political protests and the world of professional tennis (1982).

Watchman, Cinecittà, Rome, 1956, Image, William Klein | William Klein | STIRworld
Watchman, Cinecittà, Rome, 1956, Image Image: © William Klein, Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

When we look at Klein’s professional choices, we realise that the world sorely needed him to go ahead with it and bestow upon us his vision and creativity. Through his work experience in the United States, France, and Europe, he was at the centre of photography and transformed it significantly. It was the same with fashion, which he transformed from the inside while also satirising. Every Klein frame, whether static or moving, embodies his own aesthetic and spirit: bold and a wild touch, but formally assured and filled with flare. Despite his versatility, this visual sense distinguished him as one of the most unique artists of the second half of the 20th century. Klein, who learned as he worked, enjoyed asymmetrical compositions, heads lopped off, blur, grain, and flare.

Moves and Pepsi, Harlem, New York, 1955, Image, William Klein | William Klein | STIRworld
Moves and Pepsi, Harlem, New York, 1955, Image Image: © William Klein, Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein is gone but has left behind his work and all of this jazz in the shape of gigantic, black-and-white photos placed frame by frame throughout the art galleries, as well as each of his significant books highlighted on massive television platforms where viewers can witness the supersized pages move past. His opinions on New York resonate with many and continue to take the spotlight. Klein left behind a legacy through dramatic character portraits, with each face and figure clear, alive, and completely there for his camera: a swarm of kids with baseball cards and bubble blowers, a sidewalk full of concerned entrepreneurs, a darting young man rushing through Harlem.

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