How William Klein wowed Orson Welles, influenced Federico Fellini and anticipated reality TV

The Telegraph (UK), January 8, 2023

William Klein won his first camera in a poker game in 1946. Every image he made was a little pokerish: street-wise, bluffing, anticipating, but intuitive and spontaneous too. In a career spanning seven decades he made some of the most famous fashion and documentary photographs, but also some of the most critical films about those worlds. He was an insider, and an outsider who made up his own rules, and broke them too.

Klein was born on 19 April 1926 on the edge of Harlem, New York, a clever Jewish kid in an Irish neighbourhood. By the age of 12, he was roaming the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, impressed by Edward Weston’s photographs (mainly for their flagrant nudity), the earthier Dustbowl imagery of the 1930s Farm Security Administration, and the avant-gardes of Europe.

He arrived in Paris in 1948, after serving with the US Army in Germany as a radio operator on horseback. On his second day in the city, he asked a beautiful woman for directions. Her name was Jeanne Florin. Half-Flemish, half-French, and somewhat aristocratic, she had studied Russian and sculpture. Soon, they were married.

Klein’s head was full ambitions to become a painter, and the GI Bill paid for him to attend the studio of Fernand Léger. “Léger was a big muscular guy, like Lee Marvin, and he would talk in a very simple way. He would say ‘that’s strong, keep it up’ and shit like that,” Klein recalled. “He was a Normandy peasant, no references to Heidegger or to Kant. But he did have a reference to a culture that we didn’t know. He talked about the Quattrocento and what the painters in Italy were doing. He said: ‘All you pseudo-geniuses, you’re trying to find a gallery, trying to meet collectors, trying to sell your stuff, but all that is bullshit.’ At that time there were big painted tableaux outside of movie houses, where a guy would take one photograph of a scene from the movie [and] make a big mural to advertise it. And Léger said, “these guys are working in the city and what they’re doing is much more important and relevant than what you’re doing, jerking off in the studio here. So, check it out, learn about Masaccio, Cimabue, Piero della Francesca.” We had no money and the books about these guys were expensive, so we all stole them. We studied them, and we tried to find the equivalent of their work in modern terms.”

He took to hard-edged abstraction, but was not convinced by the high modernist talk of purity dominating that field of painting. “I realised that there was something that could be done with blurriness in photography. I could go into the darkroom, take a piece of paper, cut holes in it, hold it over the photographic paper, put the enlarger light on and get blur. And I thought: maybe this is a way out of the rut of geometrical forms.”

Each photogram captured the movements of simple shapes dancing and gliding across the paper. In the summer of 1954, the art director of American Vogue, Alexander Liberman, saw an exhibition of Klein’s abstracts, and was convinced of his talent. He invited Klein to join him at the magazine. Figuring out the world of fashion would follow easily, Liberman told him. In October 1954, William and Jeanne set sail for New York.

After eight years in Paris, New York felt familiar but strange, a world of McCarthy and Marilyn, Elvis and excess, A-bombs, ad men and Mad Men. Louder, brasher, brighter and also more paranoid, anxious and derelict. “I had a peculiar kind of double vision, one almost Parisian, the other an incorrigible wise-ass New Yorker. I realized that whatever culture shock I felt would wear off eventually, so I went to town and photographed non-stop, with literally, vengeance.”
Klein’s gritty and anarchic New York street photos come as close as any images, still or moving, to the crazed and endearing intensity of the city. He decided to make them into a book, but like a “tabloid gone berserk, gross, over-inked, brutal layout, bullhorn headlines. This is what New York deserved and would get. As a poor kid, I’d felt excluded from this brilliant Big Apple and sulked. Coming back, I found it was the Big Meatball and exulted.”

No American publisher would touch the project, so he published it in Paris, London and Milan as Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956). As well as the photography, Klein composed the wildly inventive layouts, the sardonic captions, and the striking cover design. A total work of art. Today it tops many lists as the most influential photobook ever made.

****Klein showed his book to the director Federico Fellini. “I was a Fellini groupie and I knew which hotel he was staying at, so I just phoned and asked to speak to him. You could do that in those days. “Come tomorrow at three.” So, I went along. He said: “Listen I like this book, I have it already. Why don’t you come to Rome and be my assistant?” I had no idea how movies were made. I asked: “What does an assistant do?” And Fellini said, “If I’m sick, you film”. I said “No problem, I can do that”.

Klein discovered Fellini already had “eight assistants, he really didn’t need me.” Fellini was casting for Nights of Cabiria(1957), and asked Klein to photograph prostitutes, the theme of the film. But it was the star, Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, who fell sick. With time on his hands Klein photographed all over Rome, and made his second book, rapturously received. “How strange that we needed a New Yorker to discover us!” said the director Pier Paolo Pasolini. “An often sun-less Rome, where catacombs are garages and tombs bungalows… this is Klein’s Rome and mine too.” Fellini was just as smitten: “This book could be a film and someday I hope I will do it.” There is much of Klein’s vision in Fellini’s subsequent movie, La Dolce Vita (1960).

The jump to moving images was inevitable. Klein wanted to make a film that was the opposite of his New York book: “in colour, beautiful and at the same time about brain washing.” He simply pointed his movie camera at New York’s electric advertising signs in all their flickering neon colours. He cut his 11-minute film in Paris and titled it Broadway By Light(1958). Sailing back to New York with the initial print, Klein met the director Orson Welles and arranged an impromptu screening for him in the ship’s cinema. Welles declared it the first ever film that truly needed to be in colour. Later, it was recognised as the first Pop Art movie, years before Andy Warhol.

***

Throughout all this, Klein was enjoying a parallel life as a witty and inventive Vogue photographer. Post-war fashion photography had been studio-bound, and the models, as John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art rather cruelly put it, often resembled ballet dancers who had retired and married well. By the end of the 1950s, all that had begun to change – thanks in no small measure to Klein.

“I would come into the office with a bunch of propositions – new techniques + graphic ideas + slapstick + soap opera + neo­Dada + pre­pop + Post­Anything Goes. My projects met mostly with blank stares…” But Klein learned fast. “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…”

He felt the fashion studio was a little bubble of good manners, so he pricked it. He asked models to suck on their cigarettes rather than holding them like quills. He enlarged prints of faces to emphasize the grain. He shot architectural façades and brought them into the studio as giant backdrops. He moved lights around the models in long exposures to make abstract swirls. In 1959, when a studio shoot got boring, he took the models and their dressing mirrors up to the rooftop, and the fun began, in front of the New York skyline. Then they went out into the traffic, still carrying their mirrors, striking knowing and ironic poses. Klein’s irreverent photographs had the edgy chic that Vogue and its readers didn’t know they wanted.

In 1962, Klein was finding abandoned shops in Lower Manhattan and painting them bright colours that coordinated with the season’s outfits. He noticed a black guy in overalls working next door and invited him to pose in the window, beside the white models. The resulting provocation was too much for Vogue, and the man was cropped out.

***

Klein’s understanding of black experience in the USA, and his anti-colonial sentiment, were sharpened by a trip through West Africa in 1963, exploring what were then Volta and Niger, as well as Ivory Coast and Senegal. Several of his images appeared in a special issue of the Telegraph magazine. The next year, he set out to make a documentary about the young boxer Cassius Clay, who was due to fight Sonny Liston in Miami.

“Cassius was not considered a serious boxer. They thought he was a clown; they thought all his fights were fixed. Nobody gave him a chance in a million against Liston,” said Klein. On the flight down to Miami he found himself sitting next to Malcolm X, Clay’s unofficial mentor. By the time they arrived they were good friends and Klein had full access to the training camp.

Clay’s humour and braggadocio was on full display. The conservative press never likes a black man with a big mouth claiming he’s The Greatest, even if he is. By the time Clay had won the fight, the media were against him, and Klein had enough material for an electrifying film, released as Cassius, Le Grand (1964) then recut with new footage a decade later as Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1974).

Klein’s first fiction film was Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), although one might question just how fictional it is. On the surface it is a slapstick satire on the excesses of the fashion industry. The vanities. The money-worship. The elevation of market-driven taste into pseudo-manifesto. We see models in ludicrous aluminium outfits. Designers, editors and assorted flunkies drift through a dreamscape of delusion and self-disgust. The redeeming character is Polly Maggoo herself, played with a sad, bittersweet under-current by a favourite Vogue model, Dorothy McGowan. Upon seeing the film, the director Stanley Kubrick told Klein he was at least ten years ahead of anyone, which was maybe a little too far for his own good.

Despite the blatant mockery of fashion’s icy empress Diana Vreeland, Polly Maggoo did not spell the end of Klein’s fashion work, although that would come soon enough. “Politics came late in my life, during the Algerian War, and with a vengeance during the American intervention in Vietnam. And in May ’68, at nearly 40 years old, a sort of midlife crisis of politics got to me,” he said. “I turned away from the more or less mainstream films to put my movie camera at the service of those who have no way of speaking out.”

Meanwhile the Cassius Clay movie was still playing all over Africa, making the boxer an icon of new black confidence. In 1969 Klein was commissioned to film the now legendary Pan African Festival of Algiers, a breath-taking gathering of key black musicians, performers, politicians and activists from around the world. While in Algiers he met Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, and proposed to make a documentary film of him. Over three days he shot while Cleaver expounded on his philosophy and radical politics. Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) screened in the USA with seats at ‘revolutionary prices’ (all $1). Half the proceeds went to the Panthers. It scandalised Hollywood.

Back in Paris, Klein released Mister Freedom (1969), a vaudeville sci-fi comic-book drama about the psychosexual warp of an American ideology deluded by imperialist fantasy, religious repression, celebrity worship and a fatal inability to grow up. The film starred Donald Pleasence as Dr Freedom, who sends Mr Freedom (John Abbey), a slab of arrogant–vulnerable US beefcake, to Paris to defeat Red Menace and Yellow Peril. Where Polly Maggoo took on the commodification of femininity, Mister Freedom skewered masculinity and its toxic self-deceptions. Klein’s garish marker-pen storyboards were translated to the screen as literally as possible. It pioneered the seamless mise-en-scène of dress, character and location we see in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

To fund his own production company, so he could pursue projects on his own terms, in the early 1970s Klein shot more than 250 TV adverts. His third fiction film, The Model Couple (1977), is about a young pair who win a national competition to live in a new apartment where they are monitored by psychologists, filmed around the clock and broadcast live to the nation. Under non-stop scrutiny they begin to fall apart mentally. The crew loses perspective too, and the whole thing unravels. Klein was always withering about mass media manipulation but full of empathy for individual humans and their circumstances. The Model Couple is an astonishing film, anticipating The Truman Show and reality TV by two decades.

In the late 1980s, after forty years of breathless creativity, Klein took his first glances back at his achievements, and began to oversee exhibitions of his work. His energy undimmed, more films followed, along with yet more books of photographs and a return to the world of fashion he had helped to transform.

Klein died in September 2022, just as his major retrospective at New York’s International Center of Photography was closing. A self-made maverick, he was always somewhat bullish with writers and curators who wished to canonise him, perhaps fearing somehow that it might pin him down, or signal the end of his non-conformism. Inimitable, provocative, generous, he always moved on before he got bored, or boring. As his wife Jeanne, who died in 2005, put it, he was “someone who never really wants to reveal who he is or what he wants. All the important people, he was never polite to them, even those he liked. Maybe to prove something. People think he’s tough and mean and God knows what. But he just went his own way and that was that. He never played that game.”

Extracted from David Campany’s introduction to William Klein: Yes (Thames & Hudson, £65)