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William Klein

William Klein Biography

born New York, NY (USA) 1928

Up until recently, it was thought that the snapshot-aesthetic of American photography began with Robert Frank in the 50s and developed to include Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. However, it has now become evident that William Klein stands as the form's most accomplished innovator.

Klein grew up in New York. He spent two years in the US Army, stationed in Germany and France, and after his discharge he settled in Paris to become a painter. Working briefly with Fernand Leger, Klein went on to exhibit in Italy, where he painted a series of abstract murals for Italian architects.

As an artist using photography, as one says today, he set out to re-invent the photographic document. In 1954, he applied these experiments to his native New York: familiar, yet - after living for 6 years in Paris - oddly foreign. The result was Life is Good and Good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels. His book of 1956 (re-issued 1995), a gritty street level view of New York and its denizens, unlike anything American photography has seen before. The book was published in Europe (no American publisher would touch it) and thus little known in the US at the time - except, paradoxically, by almost every photographer.

Frank's book of 1958, The Americans, with its sedate, black and white view of American desolation sprang from a poetic, elegiac, essentially European sensibility. Klein's unflinching in-your-face images which had been published two years before, presaged it while relying on a much harder aesthetic. Using fast film, high contrast, grain blur, a wide angle lens and heretical framing, he compounded accidents and abstraction. He designed the book himself, half Dada, half nightmare, often uncomfortable, always new.

As Klein describes it, "I was a make believe ethnographer: treating New Yorkers much as a museum expedition would treat Zulus - in search of the straightest of straight documents, the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography."

Along with his street-level assaults, Life is Good and Good for You in New York contained captions with a Beat poet stream of consciousness narrative. To describe a shot of a Manhattan office building, he wrote "Skyscraper on the island. Hockshop mess of landscape, so typical, l love it. Great and generous, nothing sacred, nothing spared, anything goes… Here you realize that not only is New York America but it is All America… the first Frontier Town, the original, the Eternal Boom Town, wilder than the Wildest West, more Texan than Texas."

Photo books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo followed, each with a different approach, pushing to the limit what photography could reveal.

If Klein's nature was Dada, his fascination with typography, urban junk and the absurd presaged Pop. If he had a creative counterpart it would be Man Ray. And like Man Ray, Klein photographed fashion, where with countless innovations, he revolutionzed the medium. His influence is evident even today.

From 1955 to 1965 Klein worked for Vogue, thereby financing his other projects - books and films. From 1965 to the early 80s, he abandoned photography to concentrate on directing movies - as ground-breaking as his photographs. They include Broadway By Light (possibly the first Pop Film), the classic offbeat features Who are you Polly Maggoo? and Mr. Freedom, the corrosive documentaries Muhammad Ali the Greatest and The Little Richard Story up to his 1999 masterwork The Messiah: an oratorio for the end of the century.

Klein's major new film, Le Messie, is currently showing at selected cinemas around the world. Its American launch coincides with a retrospective season of Klein's films at the prestigious Harvard University Cinematique, from 25 February, 2000.

Select Timeline

Select Exhibitions

  • 2000 - Galleria Carla Sozzani, Milan, Italy
  • 1999 - Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland
  • 1999 - Fnac, Paris, France
  • 1998 - Grand Manege, Moscow, Russia
  • 1998 - Jane Jackson Gallery, Atlanta, USA
  • 1997 - Pushkin Museum, Moscow
  • 1997 - Saint-Gervais Center, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1997 - Caixa National Foundation, Madrid, Spain
  • 1997 - Deichtor Hallen, Hamburg, Germany
  • 1997 - Pouchkine Museum, Moscow, Russia
  • 1997 - Hamiltons Gallery and British Film Institute, London, UK
  • 1997 - Fondazione Nazionale Della Fotografia, Turin, Italy

Select Artwork

  • Piazza di Spagna, Rome, Vogue, 1960
  • Stood Up At Childs, 2001
  • Rant, 2001
  • Man Forground, Woman Behind, 2001
  • 7up, 2001
  • Mighty Mouse, 2001
  • Supermarket and Gun, 2001
  • Woman and Saks, 2001



  • William Klein: Paris + Klein - by William Klein, Lane Anthony, Zzdap Publishing (April 2003)
  • The Photographer's Eye - by John Szarkowski, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans, William Klein, Paul Strand, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 1, 2007)

Quick Facts

  • As an artist using photography, he set out to re-invent the photographic document.
  • In 1952 klein had two shows in milan at the "piccolo teatro" and at the "galleria il milione" and began to collaborate with the architect angelo mangiarotti, who commissioned murals on moveable panels that could be used as room dividers
  • From 1955 to 1965 klein worked for Vogue.
  • During the 90s he continued to create mixed media works using painting and photography.


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