The Notebook

'Imagination will take you everywhere'

William Klein: The Outsider

William Klein is one of the most eminent photographers of our time. Street photographer, fashion photographer, film-maker and artist – he is one of those creative, talented people who has the ability to do it all. So his retrospective at the Foam gallery in Amsterdam was something of a grand spectacle which enticed people from all over the world to gaze at the majestic black and white glory that are his photographs.

Before I engage in my heartfelt praise of Klein as the master that he undoubtedly is, I have one quarrel – but this negativity is solely for the curation. In the first exhibition room the prints are displayed too close together, so it’s overcrowded and too busy. This distracts the viewer from appreciating each individual photograph. Apart from that I like how each room represents a different stage in Klein’s career, whether it’s the different cities (New York, Moscow, Tokyo, Rome and Paris), or his different subjects; street, fashion and conceptual. The first room contains photographs of his home city, New York, which represents the beginning of his career when he was a young snapper eager to document the energy and electricity of the city. The grainy and often out-of-focus images certainly convey the movement, passion and soul of New York. While his unusual cropping and bizarre close-ups foreshadow his unique style which set him apart from other photographers – it is this challenging of the norm which brought him to the fore. I particularly like the way his photographs don’t shy away from serious issues, such as gang culture – one such image is a close up of a young boy holding a gun right up to the viewer’s face – a shocking and provocative photo which highlights how Klein’s photographs spoke the truth. They weren’t posed, embellished or enhanced; they were natural, candid and raw.

Klein was from a poor Jewish immigrant family and lived in an Irish neighbourhood of New York during the 1930’s, so he always felt isolated from society and never fully fitted in. This sense of being an outsider is translated through the street photographs of New York – you get the feeling that Klein was very much watching from the side-lines; always wanting to be involved with the big bad city, yet not quite feeling part of it. This documentation of daily life in New York, shocks, moves and awes the viewer, as it probably did to Klein. Another set of photographs taken in Paris have the same quality – Gay Pride March and Hungry Aristocrats – have a distinct voyeuristic nature, as if Klein is observing and analysing society to see how it behaves. This is distinctly visionary as it reminds me of the current photographer, Martin Parr’s satirical images investigating modern society to see how we present ourselves.

When Klein’s talent was spotted by the artistic eye of Alexander Liberman, art director of American Vogue, he began a ten year stint working for the prestigious magazine in 1955; and so commenced his delve into the sphere of fashion photography. Yet I found that his fashion images still shared the same spirit as his street scenes; they behold the same movement, intensity and experimental quality. I loved the juxtaposition between the constructed and posed fashion photographs, against the more natural, candid ones, such as the behind the scenes images of catwalk shows – thus encapsulating the artificial façade of the fashion industry. One famous photograph of models dressed in black and white stripes crossing a road, was a fine balance between posed and candid – Klein had asked the models to keep walking backwards and forwards, while he shot with a long lens from far away. The result is a hectic, yet beautifully composed street scene. Klein’s regular use of mirrors within his fashion photographs reinforces the emphasis on appearance and vanity within the industry, yet also plays with light and the idea that things are not what they seem.

Within the exhibition are unseen works which I would never have associated with Klein before. Upstairs there is a room filled with abstract photographs and photograms, as well as huge negatives that have been blown up and then painted on to highlight Klein’s favourites, thus echoing the way photographers crop and highlight their negatives. These produce a bold and colourful graphic statement which demonstrates how Klein effortlessly blurs the line between art and photography.

The most recent photographs Klein has taken (Brooklyn 2013) illustrate how his trajectory has come full circle. The honest photographs depicting people at play in Brooklyn are reminiscent of the very first photographs he took in New York. Despite the fact that they are in colour, they still exude the vibrancy and excitement of his early images, as well as having a similar cropping and compositional style. The master that both shocked and revolutionised the world of photography back in the 50’s and 60’s has undoubtedly still got it.

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