William Klein chic and shock photographer of Marco Belpoliti

There are three great masters of what has been called Street photography: Walker Evans (1903-1975), Robert Frank (1924-2019) and William Klein (1928-2022). The first was an aspiring writer then turned to photography; the second a fashion photographer – he left three years ago -; the third, Klein, left us the other day: he was a painter, or so he had begun. Three authors, in short, who entered the history of photography by different paths, bearers of a visual novelty that came from other areas.

In 1948 the New Yorker Klein, the son of a family of Hungarian immigrants, arrives in Paris to study painting. Among his masters is André Lhote, a painter, with whom they had studied various artists who later became famous, and, among these, Cartier-Bresson who at the end of his career returned to painting, reversing the path of Klein, who rightly saw we can consider its antithesis: so formal is the photograph of the French, so deformed and aggressive that of the American.

Klein is not just a photographer; indeed, strictly speaking he is not at all: he uses photography to paint, to write, to scratch, to layout and to portray. Photographer against photography, the literary one, posing, which he wants to tell the world through the news, the context, the event or the accident. Klein, on the other hand, no: his is one action-photographyas Alain Sayag writes in the catalog of a major exhibition a few years ago (William Klein, Éditions du Center Pompidou et Éditons du Marval), also a very different object from that of his colleagues, similar to the many irreverent catalogs he has produced in his long career. In the work of the American artist, who began by studying sociology and then assisted artists like Léger in Paris, an absolute fluidity dominates, a form of flow, as if the world were nothing more than a surface arranged on a single side of the space, and as if the eye of the photographer (but also of the filmmaker or graphic designer or painter or layout artist, all figures present in him) a glass lens that is always open, ready to capture every face, wall, object, shop window, parade or palace that appears in front of him. Just look back today Rome (1958) and Fly And Tokyo (1964).

If Walker Evans caresses the world, as Luigi Ghirri said, Klein seems to slap him, so as to transcribe his senseless movement as if his glass eye had provoked it: photography as a shock. But at the same time his art is also chic. So that we can say that his is the chic of shock. In a text for Close Up (1989) Klein defined his own images: “The shock of Match plus the chic of the Bauhaus ”. Right. But this is only partially true. Anyone who has had in their hands the splendid books dedicated to cities (Paris, New York, Rome, Tokyo, Moscow), knows that Klein’s chic tends to glamor, without ever reaching it, and yet it touches it, courts it, chases it, but then stops for a moment before falling into it. David Campany, writer, curator, but also artist, in one of the pages of his book On the photographs (Einaudi) dwells on a famous Klein fashion shoot: Fashion from 1959 for “Vogue”.

Photograph by William Klein.

The job for the glossy magazine comes three years later Life in Good & Good for You in New York: Trance, Witness, Revels, photographic book that revolutionized the genre and showed a wonderful and at the same time cruel city. If this volume goes “against every rule of good taste”, the fashion shoot that he bases on the roof of a building creates another displacement. We are in the chic, but it is not that of Avedon, against whom he photographs Klein, with his studio formalism – he is the Cartier-Bresson of fashion, as American as Klein is French.

Here no portraits: the group of models, beautiful and elegant, is squadernated on the flat roof of the building, two of them hold a mirror, so the image is multiplied: they are three mannequins, but a fourth can be seen in the reflection , which is not there, or is nearby. The non-existence of fashion and its existence at the same time: it is the image. Then Klein makes the girls go down the street with their mirrors, “improvising ironic poses, multiplying the spectacle they make fun of”. Klein knows what the fashion game is: futile, but very serious. He loves this futility, as happens to a painter who has to use both the serious and the humorous, the futile and the grave, the cheerful and the painful to paint. The fashion game, as Campany recalls, he played very well. On the pages of “Vogue” the service looked like a parody but was an immediate success. Which says a lot about what fashion is like as an image.

In his photographs, blurred, in motion, detailed, partial and at the same time general, there is no drama or tragedy, rather their opposite: the magma of chaotic vision that does not discriminate but itself. What remains of the lesson of the “high school of form” in Weimar, from which his inspiration comes, is if anything the innovative shot by Feininger, that of The top of the stairs seen through the eye of the lens (1925-30), not the formal rigor or the pleasure of montage and collage off-centered, lopsided, transversal, yet always in balance of the Bauhaus. Klein has an excessive gaze, certainly not problematic. None of his photographs, paginated without frame, without margin, often breaking it in half to put it on the page (his books are always innovative in lay out), is transformed into a document: aesthetic moments cut away in the chaotic flow of reality.

The former painter tends to repetition, re-creates the same shot, repeats it several times with ease, and succeeds; he uses the jump cut typical of comics, as Quentin Bajac writes in that catalog of the exhibition at the Center Pompidou. His hand jumps, jumps, discards; or it is reality that does it, because reality is never stationary except in the images of other photographers. Klein’s is a gestural art that veers towards graphism, as if the world were an advertising billboard, a paper surface on which continuous décollages can be made. The young Klein, painter in the 1950s, collaborator of Mangiarotti for murals, author of some of the most beautiful covers of Domusassistant director of Fellini – he had wanted him as assistant director for Romebut he did not do anything, or so it is handed down in the Fellini legend -, as well as being a permanent photographer of Vogue (Liberman discovered him as a photographer to shoot New York), only one problem has always been posed: how to photograph without taking photographs?

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Photograph by William Klein.

His are graphic scenes in which the outside world appears in the form of Remix: to record on a single tape, mixing sounds and colors, dialogues and music, movements and signs. A second level operation, because the layout, like the printing of the photographs, is for him remixing, a theme on which he still has something to say today and of which he was an authoritative exponent. What else are the Contacts Peints, where the frames are repainted, crossed out, juxtaposed, if not this? In that great Parisian exhibition, in which his city of imprinting celebrated it years ago, the work to which Klein had dedicated himself since the mid-nineties was exhibited: painting and photography, drawing in black and white and bright color. To put it in a formula: Warhol and the Farm Security Administration together. Did the young Czechoslovakian of the beginnings, a talented window dresser, have learned from him, as well as from Saul Steinberg, another secret master of that New York in the 1950s?

Klein’s great skill is to make us perceive our gaze as natural, reversing our expectations, moving the machine and keeping the eye still, or acting in reverse. The result is something unseen, better: just seen, fluens form. His ability to always be on the move has been devoured by fashion, of which he is the lucky darling. Because fashion, the most constructed and manipulated reality there is, continually needs to seem natural, light, immediate, as it appears in Fashion. Klein is one of its prophets, the most convincing of the great glamor photographers, because he is never just a photographer, but something else. His films prove it. In 1966 he turned Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, film considered “the best description of the seductive absurdity of fashion(Campany). Here his diversity, his bulimia of the real, reaches its peak together with the natural inclination to the grotesque.

And it is in cinema that his syncretism reaches its apex and paradoxically provides us with a vision of reality that is not at all quiet or irenic. With his Mister Freedom of 1967-68 (widely copied by Mattew Barney in his videos) produces the comic book of Imperial America of the last forty years, while with Muhammad Ali the Greatest (remake in 1974 of the film shot in 1964-65) brings avant-garde cinema into the social documentary, as confirmed by the cinematographic works on the Black Panters, on the Festival of Pan-African cultures and Grand Soirs & petit matin on May 68 to the Latin Quarter.

Revolutionary Klein? Yes, but first of all about taste. Taking leave of him, one cannot help but think that even the revolution is, in the end, an aesthetic fact and that, once the ethics that supported it have fallen away, what remains of it is a colorful carnival of which William Klein was, and remains, the energetic and inexhaustible portrait painter. He is the Grand Master of the world show!

William Klein chic and shock photographer of Marco Belpoliti