Known for his unconventional approach to photography, American-born, French-based William Klein’s experimental techniques has seen him flourish in the worlds of fashion and art and has also led him to be considered “among the fathers of street photography”.
With completely improvised methods of shooting, the photographer’s main aim is to capture the banality of everyday life and the mundane actions undertaken by the people walking the streets around the world. Klein’s objective is to “Become an active participant of the scene. Interact with the people, hear their conversations, and as a rule of thumb be close enough to see the colors of their eyes”. The photographer uses modest photographic equipment to achieve these goals, his 21-28 mm wide lenses forcing to get up close and personal with his subjects.
Unfazed by the distortion wide-angle lenses produced, Klein is also relaxed when it comes to the general rules of thumb in photography. His candid photography is often rushed – the excitement of shooting the most raw and intimate of shots overwriting the importance of making a perfect, technically sound image; hence the many blurry, shaky, grainy over or under exposed photographs.
“I approached New York like a fake anthropologist, treating New Yorkers like Zulus.” – William Klein
Beginning his photographic career at Vogue, Klein’s approach to fashion photography was unusual at the time. In an era where studio settings were generally used for shooting editorials for important fashion publications, Klein’s relaxed methods incorporated elements of his later, less calculated work on the streets. Klein’s initial portraits featured in Vogue could almost be considered his earliest street photography.
Working between Paris and New York for Vogue allowed Klein to shoot a photographic diary of his birthplace – and “New York 1954 – 1955” contained photographs many Americans were not used to seeing. Klein’s aim to portray the most honest side of the city that never sleeps meant that a gritty and aggressive New York was depicted, portraying a vision that was highly controversial at the time. Speaking of his purpose with the project, Klein states “I approached New York like a fake anthropologist, treating New Yorkers like Zulus.”
Although a native of New York, Klein based himself in France prior to his discharge from a French army station during WWII. He enrolled at the Sorbonne, later studied abstract painting and sculpture under Fernand Léger and eventually became acquaintances with the art director of Vogue, which mushroomed his career. Klein still lives and works in Paris, and cites the city as an important influence on his life’s work.
Even though Klein is said to be “a man of two cities”, the photographer fixes his wide-angle lens across the world in order to make the most versatile of street work. Whether the master is shooting in his native New York, his adopted home of Paris, in Moscow, Rome or Tokyo, his notable approach to street photography continues to entertain and to inspire.
See below 9 more of Klein’s best shots.
The Holy Family on Bike, Rome (1956)
Bikini, Moscow (1959)
The William Klein retrospective is at the C/O Berlin until 2 July 2017