Klein was known for his photography, which incorporated and combined a wide range of subjects, including candid street photography, cinematic fashion and high-contrast abstract works. He also maintained strong filmmaking and painting practices.
William Klein takes pictures on Paris Plage on August 15, 2005. Credit: Elise Hardy/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Klein was born in New York City in 1926, and lived there until he was 20 years old, when the US Army sent him to Europe to help with reconstruction efforts after World War II. It was during this trip that he got his first camera — won in a card game — and eventually settled in Paris, where he studied painting and sculpture at the Sorbonne and worked in the studio of the famous modernist painter Fernand Léger.
American photographer William Klein poses in front of photographs from the New York series during the Retrospective Photographs and Films photo exhibition at the C/O Galerie museum on April 28, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Imago/Zumapress/FILE
It was in Europe that Klein began to seriously pursue his great love, photography, and soon began to transpose the abstract forms of his paintings and sculptural studies into shadowy geometric photographs of objects in motion, as seen in compositions such as 1952’s “Moving Diamonds.” , Mural Project, Paris” or “Turning Black Egg”.
Klein’s experiment soon won a fan back in his hometown: Alexander Lieberman, Vogue’s art director, who helped bring Klein’s kineticism to glittering high fashion. Klein spent his youth finding inspiration in the shy and busy chaos of New York’s streets, and would spend days wandering the city, photographing strangers and talking to them about their lives, as immortalized in his iconic 1956 photo book. Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels.”
Soon he also began shooting his editorials on the street, placing models among crowds and taxis and photographing them in striking, almost surrealistic scenes of confusion and pause. In an era dominated by the stylized studio photographs of photographers such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Klein’s decision to bring fashion photography down to the tumultuous friction of the street was considered revolutionary.
US photographer William Klein takes pictures at the exhibition ‘William Klein Rome photos – 1956/1960’ at Trajan’s Market in Rome on April 13, 2010. Credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
His desire to capture life as it actually happened would continue throughout his films, including the escape of Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver to America and the 1981 French Open tennis tournament.
A visitor walks past several works by contemporary US photographer William Klein during a press preview of the ‘William Klein exhibition’ at the La Pedrera cultural center in Barcelona, Catalonia, northeastern Spain, March 5, 2020. Credit: Enric Fontcuberta/EFE/Zumapress
Klein’s wide-ranging talent gained him recognition in the worlds of fashion, film and fine art, and he received numerous honors, including the 1999 Royal Photographic Society of London’s Century Medal and the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2007, as well as several museum exhibitions and acquisitions. (A major exhibition of his at the International Photography Center, which was due to close on Monday, has been extended until Thursday.)
Although he achieved so much in the media, Klein always returned to photography and remained an active photographer in his later years.
“I have a special relationship with God,” Klein told The Interview about his favorite discipline. “And when I get the right picture, God gives me a little bing! in the camera. And then I know I’m on the right track.”