“Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo ?”asks the title of William Klein’s most famous film. If you turn the question around on Klein and ask who he is, the answer is likely to be a long one. For not only is he among the most renowned fashion photographers of the century, but he’s also (as well as art directing his own books), the director of a score of documentaries and feature films, and over 250 television ads.Klein is featured here this winter with a major retrospective at the Pompidou Center. It provides a detailed look at more than 50 years of work, juxtaposing some of his earliest and most recent photographs, as well as various book dummies, extracts from films, paintings, drawings and posters – selected largely from the artist’s personal archives.
William Klein’s pictures rewrote the photographer’s rulebook by turning photographic “faults” into qualities. When he started out, Klein says, his maxim was, “Anything goes.” “I came from painting, at a time when people were saying that painting and painting rules were dead,” he recalls. “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 gray 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.”
To this day, his images are often out of focus and seemingly chaotic, his perspective blurred by wide-focus or telephoto lenses and his subjects partly cut out of the frame. Commenting on his pictures Klein once 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.”
The New York photos were taken in 1954-55 during one of his brief returns to America. In 1948, William Klein arrived in Paris with a GI grant in hand and has lived here most of the time ever since. At first he studied sociology at the Sorbonne, then painting with Fernand Léger, before discovering photography. “Léger rid me completely of my petit-bourgeois way of thinking,” he later explained. “He wanted us to get out of the studio and go into the street.”
Klein did just that when Vogue commissioned a series on New York. “I love crowds of people,” he says. “I find an extraordinary cast on the street, put there completely by chance.” Tinted with black humor and irony, his photos of that city depict the panorama of street life in all its harsh reality. Yet, while Klein had heeded Léger’s advice, he ignored that of another master by deliberately going against the non-interventionist policy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. “It was said that you shouldn’t take sides or express opinions, but I couldn’t see how or why I should avoid doing so. I loved and hated New York. Why not show that?”
The result was not to everybody’s liking. Most Americans of the time were unwilling to accept the slum-like reality with which Klein’s images confronted them. Published in France, “New York” was followed by albums on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo. At the same time, William Klein started to make a name as a fashion photographer. Alexander Liberman, the art director who hired him at Vogue, once said, “In terms of fashion photography, nothing happened in the ’50s before Klein.” He took models out of the stuffy atmosphere of the studio, ruffled the establishment’s feathers by photographing a model smoking without a cigarette holder – shock, horror! – and opened the way for the likes of David Bailey and Helmut Newton in the ’60s.
Yet, he saw fashion photography as a way of making money to finance other projects and could never really take all its trappings seriously. This is most obvious in “Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?” – a cutting satire on that world. For one scene, Klein invited a prestigious group of style gurus and sophisticates to a mock catwalk show. The clothes, made of aluminum leaves, were meant to be ridiculous. “But the applause… was really sincere,” said Klein. “They really seemed to like what they saw.”
Hired in the 1950s as Federico Fellini’s assistant on “Notte di Cabiria,” Klein was the art director of Louis Malle’s “Zazie dans le Métro,” and from 1965 abandoned still photography for 15 years, to work on a host of feature films and documentaries for the cinema and French television. Several of his own films such as “Loin du Vietnam” (a protest against the Vietnam war), and documentaries about Mohammed Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, dancer Jean Babilée and Little Richard have become cult classics.
After a large exhibition of his stills in New York in 1980, Klein renewed his interest in photography. His work since has largely been that of an acute social observer. However, he is no photo addict. “I never walk about with my camera,” he says. “I have only ever taken photos… for my books, commissions and on important occasions.”
When asked a few years ago if he considered himself an expatriate artist, he commented: “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 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.”
Photo caption: Gainsbourg © William Klein