William Klein, master of urban photography and great New York portraitist, dies at 94 | Culture | The USA Print


The 94-year-old American photographer William Klein, one of the greatest of his art, who expanded his work in his hometown, New York, died on Saturday the 10th in Paris, although his death has not been made public until this Monday by the afternoon. Klein had resided in France since 1947, when he enrolled at the Sorbonne University. Klein passed away “peacefully” on Saturday night, according to his son.

Klein achieved worldwide fame with his groundbreaking book Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Rebels (1956). “I had the feeling at that moment that New York City was exploding before me and that all these people, this movement, were coming towards me. Seeing it I could use it to photograph because it conveyed emotions, feelings. For me, everything is about feelings”, he recounted on his last trip to Madrid, in 2019, for the presentation of a retrospective of his work. “Today people are very used to being photographed on the street. However, when I did, they were surprised that I was there and hit them so hard. Emotions inspired me. At the same time, I was planning, I had my ideas, I created in my head how I was going to lay it out, to prepare everything, I thought of a set”.

The son of European Jewish immigrants of humble origin, Klein traveled to Europe, specifically to Germany, thanks to his time in the army, and that is how he arrived in Paris, where he had Fernand Léger as a teacher: his first impulse was to be a painter. But he soon switched to photography, specializing in fashion for fashion, and finally carrying out numerous reports and photo essays all over the world. Hence the eclecticism of his work: from abstract paintings from the late 1940s to his passion for cinema: between documentaries, shorts and feature films he directed some twenty films. In addition, he made 250 advertisements.

'Bikini', Moskva River beach photograph taken in 1959 by William Klein.
‘Bikini’, Moskva River beach photograph taken in 1959 by William Klein.William Klein

In Paris he studied not only the teachings of Léger, but also the masters of the Renaissance, Mondrian and the architects of the 20th century. “He shot without aiming, at random, exaggerated the grain, the contrast, enlarged excessively and, in general, passed the photographic process through the blender,” he said of that time. With his “European points of view and Native American instinct”, as he put it, he later photographed Rome (1958), Moscow (1964) and Tokyo (1964). And he embarked on multiple jobs on all records.

'Gun 1', made in New York in October 1954.
‘Gun 1’, made in New York in October 1954.

Thanks to his talent, to his walks almost as if he were a hunter in search of faces, he was able to portray people among the crowd: in his photography there were individuals and the society he portrayed also appeared. His New York was as colorful as it was optimistic: there was a future. In the other aspect of him, that of a fashion photographer, he used a different and impressive language, taking the mannequins out into the street to mingle with the people.

Klein devoted himself to photography in spurts, with a wide angle on his camera that brought subjects closer. In this way, he moved away from the traditional forms of Cartier Bresson, betting on an expressionist, street and demystifying form. “The most beautiful and unique thing in people is the look. What happens is that in New York people don’t look you in the eye. That can cause you problems. When I was a kid and I walked through a neighborhood that wasn’t mine, and that was like traveling to a foreign country, people would get upset if you looked at them. I found several ways to deal with it. One was tobacco. He asked for a fire and thus distracted attention from him. Another was to play dumb. That always works, you avoid fights”, he assured in another interview in EL PAÍS in 2005.

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