William Klein

Born in: 1928

United States

Biography

Painter, photographer, graphic designer, movie maker, American in Paris, William Klein escapes pigeonholes, categories, movements.

Born in New York in 1928, He grew up in the mean streets of Manhattan shuttling between blackboard jungles, experimental schools, pool halls, and the Museum of Modern Art. At eighteen, he graduated from college and at twenty, after serving for two years in the USA Army in Europe ( of which one and a half at the Sorbonne, invited by the French government) he settled in Paris to become a painter. He worked briefly with Fernand Léger and, in the early fifties, did kinetic murals in Milano for Italian architects, absorbing, along the way, European visual history from Masaccio to the Bauhaus.

In 1954, after six years of experimenting in painting and graphic design, he returned to New York and embarked on a complicated love-hate affair with his native city that became a unique photographic adventure. Half amazed foreigner, half street-wise New Yorker he set out to record on film his photographic diary.

He transformed the chaos of the streets into complex compositions ordered by a discipline firmly rooted in his artist’s apprenticeship. At the same time he explored and catalogued as no photographer had done before, the big city theater of the absurd : the zombie crowds, the senseless violence, the lunatic parades and processions, the walls plastered with Dada messages and the mad accumulation of urban junk. In the process, Klein managed to integrate into photography references as diverse as fifteenth century frescoes, slapstick films, comic strips and the pre-Pop layouts.

The book whose original title was NEW YORK IS GOOD & GOOD FOR YOU was published in 1956 and created a veritable revolution. Klein had developed a radically new way of taking pictures, with the violent, graphic style combining black humour, social criticism, satire, and poetry.

« For the first time, wrote the poet and critic Alain Jouffroy, photographs led the evolution of visual arts. Klein developed practically all of the themes dealt with later by Pop Art and the New Realism… »
The book designed by Klein himself won in the 1957 Prix Nadar but was not published in the United States until after a forty-year purgatory.

Following New York, Klein created three innovative books, in which his brand of photographs were laid out in freeflowing, cinematic sequences : ROME (1958), MOSCOW (1961) and TOKYO (1962).
From 1955 to 1965, he also photographed for Vogue, producing bizarre, satirical images of rare wit and style.

In 1958, Klein made BRODWAY BY LIGHT, no doubt the first Pop film, and in the mid-sixties, abandoned photography for film making. His movies range from the sagas of super-blacks : MUHAMMAD ALI THE GREATEST (1964-1974), ELDRIDGE CLEAVER, BLACK PANTHER (1970), and THE LITTLE RICHARD STORY (1980) to the political documentaries, FAR FROM VIETNAM (1967) and THE PANAFRICAN FESTIVAL (1969) to the experimental features, QUI ÊTES-VOUS POLLY MAGGOO ? (1966) MISTER FREEDOM (1968), TH MODEL COUPLE (1976), and IN & OUT OF FASHION (1993), corrosive fables on the ideological myths of our time.

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  • American Artist

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