William Klein: YES. Photographs, Paintings, Films 1948-2013

International Center of Photography New York, June 3 - September 12, 2022

Street photographer. Fashion photographer. Painter. Graphic designer. Abstract artist. Writer. Filmmaker. Book maker. Few have transformed as many fields of art and culture as William Klein. From his wildly inventive photographic studies of New York, Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo to bold and witty fashion photographs; from cameraless abstract photography to iconic celebrity portraits; from documentary films about Muhammad Ali, Little Richard, and the Pan-African Festival of Algiers to fiction films about the beauty industry, imperialism, and consumer culture, Klein has made every form and genre his own. Through it all runs his distinct graphic energy and deep affection for humanity’s struggles through the chaos of modern life.

Born in Manhattan in 1928, Klein visited the city’s art museums as a teenager and longed to get to Europe. By 1948 he was in Paris where he studied at the Sorbonne, worked briefly under artist Fernand Léger, and where he has lived ever since. For decades he juggled commercial assignments around the world with personal projects in photography, film, painting, and publishing. His output was prodigious. There were few exhibitions until the late 1980s, when he began to look back at his achievements. Gaining the admiration of younger generations, he returned to the fashion world and continued to make groundbreaking films and photobooks.

As the exhibition was coming to a close, William Klein died. This was ICP’s announcement:

William Klein 1926-2022

We are deeply saddened to report the death of the artist William Klein. He passed away on Saturday, September 10, 2022, in Paris at age 96, just as his major retrospective exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP), William Klein: YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948 -2013 (on view June 3 – September 12, 2022) was due to come to its close. 

Through seven decades of extraordinary output, Klein juggled many lives – as a painter, street photographer, fashion photographer, designer, maker of books, writer, documentary filmmaker and fiction filmmaker. He was a visionary in all ways, disregarding the social and artistic attitudes of his time to cut a unique path both in his commercial work and his personal projects, and across all media. Innovative and uncompromising, he opened countless doors for subsequent imagemakers around the world. 

Born on the edge of Harlem, New York in 1926, Klein fell in love with the art of the European avant gardes that he saw in the city’s museums.  In 1946 he went to Germany for two years as part of an Allied forces reconstruction mission. He was a radio operator, on horseback.  His creative life began as a painter in post-war Paris, the city that remained his home. On the first day there, he asked a young woman for directions to the Sorbonne, where he was to take some classes. The woman was Jeanne Florin. They were soon married and together until her death in 2005. Klein also enrolled at the studio of the great artist Fernand Léger. He progressed swiftly from figurative work to abstraction, and from canvas to the photographic darkroom. His striking abstract photographs appeared on the covers of design magazines such as Domus, as well as books and music LPs.  In 1954 he was invited by Alexander Liberman, the art director of Vogue (US) to join the magazine back in New York. Klein had no experience at all of fashion but Liberman saw in him an incomparably strong vision, a hunger to experiment, and an uncanny knack for visual problem solving.  

Klein breathed new life into fashion photography, making dozens of iconic images full of ironic play and daring technique. He collaborated with models rather than directing, inviting them into the adventure of it all. Meanwhile he was on the streets of New York, breaking every rule to reinvent street photography with his wild Dada-Pop love of life in all its grit and joy. Never trying to be invisible, Klein made himself present, striking up conversations with whoever he met. His photographs, full of spontaneous poses and teeming with anonymous characters, came out of these little exchanges. His New York book, Life is Good & Good for You in New York, now regarded as one of the most important photobooks ever made, was followed by equally ambitious publications about Rome (1959), Moscow and Tokyo (both published in 1964). Those books were total Klein works: he did not just the photography but the layout, the witty captions, and the cover designs. 

At the suggestion for his friend Chris Marker, Klein began to make movies, eventually directing over thirty documentaries with subjects ranging from 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). His freewheeling fiction films were stylish but biting satires on fashion (Who are You, Polly Maggoo?, 1966), American cultural-political imperialism (Mister Freedom, 1968) and consumer culture (The Model Couple, 1977).

Orson Welles said of Klein’s first film, Broadway by Light (1958), that it was the first movie that really needed to be in color. A decade later, Stanley Kubrick suggested Klein was too far ahead for his own good. But Klein pushed on with breath-taking energy, not looking back at his work for decades. In and Out of Fashion (1994) was his own account of his career to date, taking the form of a book, a kaleidoscopic film, and an exhibition presented at ICP. He continued to make new work in photography, film, painting and books. Slowly the world began to catch up, and he returned to making exhibitions, initially across Europe and Asia. The fashion world came knocking once again. Now Klein was something of a living legend, still able well into his 80s to make images with all the energy of his twenty-year-old self.  His portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, Pelé and Pharrell Williams from the early 2000s are among the best loved of his works. 

Despite having worked so much in the USA, it was always the country Klein had left. But he never felt fully French nor European. Instead, he identified with something in between and in many ways, this was the key to his creative life: he was at the heart of photography and changed it dramatically but never felt part of it. It was the same with fashion, a field he revolutionized from within even while he satirized it. His documentary films, made on the fly and in the moment, follow no convention but his own. Every Klein frame, be it still or moving has his distinctive aesthetic and spirit – daring and a little unruly but formally assured and brimming with flair. For all his range, this visual sensibility made him one of the most distinctive artists of the second half of the twentieth century. 

His grandparents had come from Hungary to New York and set up a clothing business on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, just around the corner from the new home of the International Center of Photography, at 79 Essex Street. The ICP retrospective, which Klein himself titled YES: Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948-2013, has been his artistic homecoming, embraced by the public and the press alike.  

—David Campany, Curator of the exhibition William Klein: YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948–2013.


Installation photos: Jeenah Moon

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