A Klein romance

Photographer and film-maker William Klein proves that you can excel in more than one medium. London is now celebrating his work.

William Klein is one of those awesome people who not only does everything, but does it exceptionally well. Born in New York in 1928, Klein studied painting in the late Forties with Fernand Léger, took ground-breaking fashion pictures for Vogue magazine in the Fifties while producing the most radical documentary photos of the time. Then in the late Fifties he moved on to film-making.

At the start of the current season of his films at the National Film Theatre, Klein explained that “the idea of being multidisciplinary came to me from The Bauhaus – but to me, working in different media doesn’t matter, ultimately it’s all the same thing.”

Klein first rose to prominence through taking a series of photographs of New York in 1954/55 that make up the current show at Hamilton’s Gallery. Having been away from his native city for eight years, Klein embarked on producing a visual diary with the fresh eyes of an outsider. Where photography had previously espoused the values of the analytical and objective, Klein mixed the brashness of a news photographer with the simplicity of a snapshot. In a 1981 interview Klein said “I saw the book as a monster big-city Daily Bugle, with its scandals and scoops, that you’d find blowing in the streets at three in the morning.” Visiting the Hamilton’s show makes you realise this definitely isn’t a Fifties retro Americana view of the city. The pictures, some blown up to almost two metres, are grainy, harsh and brooding. Kids on the street play with toy guns, pointed at themselves or, goaded on by Klein, straight at the viewer. Typography is all over the place, filling the frame, from the tin 7-Up signs nailed to trees to the hand-painted window on a diner promising “Delicious hamburger with onion and sliced pickle 40 cents”. Unsurprisingly, the book was turned down by all the American publishers Klein approached, finally appearing in Klein’s adopted country, France.

“The New York pictures were my first photos and Broadway by Light was my first film,” said Klein, introducing the film at the NFT. “In many ways it’s an antidote to the book because lots of people accused me of doing a book that’s too grungy, so the film about New York is a beautiful one.” Only 12 minutes long, it’s a poetic montage of cinema and theatre lights on Broadway set to a jazz score by Maurice Le Roux.

The other films that make up the season are Far from Vietnam (1967), a denunciation of American aggression in Vietnam, made in collaboration with four other directors including Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, and 200 technicians who volunteered their services. Klein covers the anti- and pro- war marches in the US while Godard filmed himself talking about the war. Among others still to come in the season are the documentaries described by Klein as “my series on legendary super blacks”: Black Panther spokesman Eldridge Cleaver; boxer Muhammed Ali and rock ‘n’ roller Little Richard.

From Vogue to Vietnam, and from painting to photography and film-making, Klein has covered it all. In an age where creative skills are moving rapidly towards specialism, it is important to cherish those who haven’t allowed themselves to be limited.

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