Paris Interview: William Klein

William Klein’s approach to photography challenges the way people see the world. His photos have been described as being a lyric combination of black humor, acerbic social observation and daring graphic invention.’

Klein, an American photographer who has lived in Paris for 35 years, began breaking the visual taboos of the medium with his first books in the fifties and sixties He has recently had a new book published, William Klein Close Up ( Editions Thames and Hudson). The book punches out at the viewer with  double-page jumbo size photos bearing the photographer’s wide-angle point-blank trademark.

Kline is one of those eclectic artists who feeds off several art mediums. During a photography hiatus Kline made several films, which include such subterranean classics as ‘Who Are You Polly Maggoo? (‘66), ‘Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther’ (‘70), and ‘The Little Richard Story’ (80).

His new book is more than a Kline’s ‘greatest hits;’ rather, it represents the photographer’s recent evolution. Although it includes a few early works as points of reference, most of the work is from recent years. Commenting on the content of his images Klein described himself as a pseudo ethnographer “in search of the straightest of straight documents, the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography… photographing a marriage like a riot, and inversely, a demonstration like a family portrait. Mix the family album with the New York Daily News.”

Klein’s book is in a sense the photographer’s own ‘family album.’ Many of these photos are currently on view at the Zabriskie Gallery along with another series titled “Messages.”

In an interview with the Free Voice  Klein made the following comments.

PV The ‘Messages’ part of your Zabriskie exhibition illustrates your interest in graphics. Have you ever been compared to the ancient Jewish Cabalists, who were interested in the hidden meaning of signs and symbols.

WK One could analyze these photos like that, but there is something about photography that is just there. I like the the mystery of these typographical screams in the night. It’s like a bottle in the ocean… but I guess all of these messages somehow or other connect.

PV You are among the first photographers to use the blur, out of focus shooting, and techniques which have become known as ‘anti-photography’ photography. How do you feel now that so many photographers have adopted your

WK I stopped taking photos for a long time – from 1965 to the end of the ‘70’s. For fifteen years I didn’t have anything to do with photography. I didn’t even know what people were doing. There are fashions in photography… Things like straight photography, and big cameras were in fashion a few years ago, but now things are getting funky again. People are using the blur, open flash and a lot of things I used a long time ago.

Thirty years ago I came to photography from the outside, so the rules of photography didn’t interest me. I thought you could do anything in photography, like you could do anything in painting at that time. At that period (in photography) there were traditions, habits and taboos. People like Cartier-Bresson were saying don’t intervene, photographers should be discrete and invisible. There was Life magazine and the Family of Man  exhibit.

I came from painting, at a time when people were saying that painting and painting rules were dead. I thought the same thing could apply to photography. I thought that there were very specific things that you could do with a lens and camera that you couldn’t do with any other medium. There is something interesting about those things specific to photography – grain, contrast, blur, cock-eyed framing, eliminating or exaggerating grey tones and so on. I thought it would be good to show what’s possible, to say that this is as valid a way of using the camera as the conventional approaches.

PV How do I feel?

What can I say? Maybe it’s because my presence has become evident again through books, shows and new work that a lot of people are reconstructing the history of photography. It’s true with the media that you have to be around… Maybe it’s a result of a dialogue that’s going on now. The work I did years ago was a way of saying that photography can be handled a hundred different ways, and you shouldn’t have any complexes about breaking any taboos.

PV Is your work more accepted here in France than in the States?

WK Well, I am here. You have to be around.  If I were living in the States I probably would have a different position.

PV Your photos are not conventionally beautiful. Who buys them?

WK Who said that people buy beautiful pictures? Who buys photos generally? Secondly, the photography market is very curious. Nobody knows where it’s going. Years ago, some people thought and hoped that photography could be sold and bought. It never really happened.

But in the last ten or fifteen years, little by little you would see photos hanging on walls with white cardboard around them, and aluminium frames. They became objects you can hang up and you could sell for several hundred or a thousand dollars. There was a boom and a lot of people thought that the big day of photographic commerce had arrived, but the boom deflated.

What happened is that there are rare photos that are worth a lot of money. A picture by Nadar or Negre or Man Ray for which there isn’t a negative any more can be worth  20,000 dollars. There’s a market for people like Kertesz or Lartigue. People say, “We have to buy some pictures for our collection at the ‘Kansas Museum of Technology'” or wherever. Each small town museum wants to do like the Museum of Modern Art. And there are a few collectors.

Up to now it’s been haphazard. For universities and museums etc. to have comprehensive collections, they need photos of so-and-so, and I am beginning to fit into that situation. These are the people who do buy my pictures. I had a show at the Light Gallery in New York in 1981 and I sold 140 pictures in the month that followed. Then just about that time the photo market had a crash, It’s sort of recovering now but, like the stock market, people after a crash, if they invest, only invest in so-called blue chips.

I figure that it’s established now because there are too many museums that have photo collections for it to go away completely. So, why do they buy my photos? Well, they figure that I fit into the history of photography somewhere and that I am one of the links in the chain.

PV Are you an expatriate artist? You’ve lived in France for a long time now.

WK Expatriate means that you leave your country and you don’t want to live there. I wouldn’t mind living in America, but it didn’t really work out that way.

I was discharged from the army in Paris and I married a French girl and stayed here. I’m set up here. It’s difficult to be in two places at once. I used to go back regularly. I couldn’t say how much is choice and how much is chance – 50/50 I guess.

I really dig going to America… I do get a charge being in America and I still consider myself very American and I even consider my approach to things very American. I think I get more of a sense of what is going on there than if I were actually living there. If I were living there I would get used to a whole lot of things.

When I go there, as soon as I get off the plane, there are so many things that knock me out – baggage, the stuff on the walls, the smells, the cab, the bus – everything gives me a charge.

PV Do you miss it?

WK Yeah, I miss it. I miss America. If by magic I could be back there twice a week, I would do it. But even if planes only take a few hours, it’s still a big deal to get ready, to get over jet lag… When I go there I get these great blasts of Americana, it takes weeks to digest…

The same is true with taking photos or doing films. If I do a book for example. People think I take years doing it. It’s not true. I would spend two months taking the photos day and night, and then I would take about six months putting the book together, choosing the photos, writing the text, doing the layout and so on. I would take much more time digesting what I’d been doing than just taking photos.

PV Where do you see photography going.

I think the only new thing in photography is mise en scéne or stage-directed photography. Les Krims surprises me. There is a guy here in France, Bernard Faucon, who does set-ups. In Japan there are several guys who do really weird staged photos.

I am personally surprised by these photos because they are so different from what I usually do with a camera. I’ve been interested in immediacy, the snapshot, and improvisation. As far as staging goes, I much preferred to do it in a movie because I thought that you don’t really look at a photo the way you look at a film.

With a movie you are a prisoner of the screen for an hour and half. I never really had the patience outside of fashion photography and advertising to stage photos. But to me that’s the only new thing. I don’t say that it’s the new direction, but it’s something that has developed in recent years which is different from the photography which has been around for a long time.

PV If you were twenty again would you come to Paris?

WK When I was a kid I lived in New York and dreamed of coming to Paris to become an artist. The French always say that nothing is happening in Paris and everything is happening in New York. And, of course, most Americans say that too. It’s true that the money is in New York. Nobody buys a living 30-year old French painter’s work for 100,000 dollars, but it does happen in New York. That is the big difference. But as far as creation goes, there are lots of areas where there is more creation here than New York.

PV What advice would you give young photographers just starting out?

WK Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work.

“Close Up” and “Messages,” Galerie Zabriskie,  at 37, rue Quincampoix, 4e.


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