American photographer William Klein dies, leaves behind a legacy

Queen Elizabeth II died in Scotland on September 8, 2022 at the age of 96. Two days later, on September 10, the famous photographer William Klein, at the age of 96, breathed his last in Paris. Like Klein’s retrospective exhibition, William Klein: YES; Photographs, paintings, films, 1948-2013, at the International Center of Photography (ICP), nearing completion, the artist left this world. In honor of the artist, ICP extended the exhibition by three days, showcasing around 300 works from Klein’s expansive and boundary-pushing career spanning six decades, and filling the ICP galleries with photos, paintings, videos, photobooks and other media. The exhibition, which analyzed the artist’s life and work in chronological order, showed his progress as an artist and revealed the connections between his many approaches. Klein’s exhibited work included wildly inventive photographic studies of New York, Rome, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo; bold and witty fashion photography; cameraless abstract photography to iconic celebrity portraits; Excerpts from documentaries on Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver and the Algiers Pan-African Festival, as well as scripted films on the beauty industry, imperialism and consumer culture.

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

“I went into town and photographed non-stop, with literal revenge,” William Klein had said of his collection of New York street photographs from 1954 and 1955, as reported by The New Yorker.

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

The American artist juggled multiple 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 time to forge a distinctive path in his commercial work, personal initiatives and across all media. He has created countless opportunities for future image creators around 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, which he experienced in the city’s museums. In the 1940s he spent two years in Germany as part of an Allied military rehabilitation operation. 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 workshop of legendary artist Fernand Léger. His captivating abstract photos have graced the pages of design magazines such as Domus, as well as books and music LPs. In 1954 he was called back to New York by Alexander Liberman, the art director of Fashion (US). No fashion expertise, but Liberman saw in him an incomparably strong vision, a love of discovery and an unusual talent for visual problem-solving.

Backstage “Who are you, Polly Maggoo?” 1966, image Image: © William Klein, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein has been realistic about his fashion career. “I accepted the obligation to show the clothes. Sharp, all buttons, pleats and whatever. As long as I did that, I found I could pretty much do whatever I wanted with the rest – backgrounds, settings, situations… Whatever, I guess the editors didn’t care as long as the reader didn’t close the page quickly turned the pages,” reads the official statement from ICP.

Independence Day Parade, Dakar, 1963, Image, William Klein |  Wilhelm Klein  STIRworld
Independence Day Parade, Dakar, 1963, image Image: © William Klein, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

Revitalizing fashion photography through the creation of numerous classic photos full of ironic play and bold technique, Klein broke every norm to revolutionize street photography with his love of Dada and Pop Art in all their rawness and excitement on the streets of New York. His portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, Pelé and Pharrell Williams from the early 2000s are among the most popular of his works.

Untitled (Moving Diamonds on Yellow), ca. 1952, image, William Klein |  Wilhelm Klein  STIRworld
Untitled (Moving Diamonds on Yellow), circa 1952, image Image: © William Klein, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

At the suggestion of his friend Chris Marker, Klein expanded his artistic practice into video format and eventually made over 30 documentaries on subjects such as the boxer Cassius Clay (1964/69), the Pan-African Festival of Algiers (1969) and the black panther Eldridge Cleaver (1970). to the political protests of the late 1960s and the world of professional tennis (1982).

Guardian, Cinecittà, Rome, 1956, image, William Klein |  Wilhelm Klein  STIRworld
Guardian, Cinecittà, Rome, 1956, image Image: © William Klein, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

When we look at Klein’s career choices, we realize that the world needed him badly to keep going and to give us his vision and creativity. Through his work experiences in the United States, France and Europe, he was at the center of photography and changed it significantly. It was the same with fashion, which he transformed and at the same time satirized from within. Each Klein frame, whether static or moving, embodies its own aesthetic and spirit: bold and wild, but formally secure and full of brilliance. Despite his versatility, this visual sense marked him as one of the most unique artists of the second half of the 20th centuryth Century. Klein, who learned on the job, enjoyed asymmetrical compositions, cropped heads, blur, grain and flare.

Moves and Pepsi, Harlem, New York, 1955, image, William Klein |  Wilhelm Klein  STIRworld
Moving and Pepsi, Harlem, New York, 1955, image Image: © William Klein, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein is gone but has left behind his work and all that jazz in the form of gigantic black and white photos placed frame by frame in the art galleries, as well as each of his significant books highlighted on huge television platforms that viewers turn to can be seen as the oversized pages move by. His opinion of New York resonates with many and continues to be in the spotlight. Klein left a legacy through dramatic character portraits, where every face and figure was clear, vivid, and fully there for his camera: a bevy of kids with baseball cards and blowing bubbles, a sidewalk full of concerned entrepreneurs, a lightning-fast young man scurrying about Harlem.

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