by Vatsala SethiPublished on : Sep 21, 2022
Queen Elizabeth II passed away in Scotland on September 8, 2022, at the age of 96. Two days later, on September 10, famed photographer William Klein also took his last breath at the age of 96 in Paris. Just as Klein’s retrospective exhibition, William Klein: YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948–2013, at the International Center of Photography (ICP), was about to wrap up, the artist left this world. In honour of the artist, ICP extended the exhibition by three days, exhibiting approximately 300 works from Klein’s wide and boundary-pushing six-decade career, filling ICP’s galleries with photos, paintings, videos, photo books, and other media. Analysing the artist’s life and works in chronological order, the exhibition demonstrated his progress as an artist and allowed the links between his many approaches to become clear. Klein’s work on display included wildly inventive photographic studies of New York, Rome, Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo; bold and witty fashion photographs; camera-less abstract photography to iconic celebrity portraits; excerpts from documentary films about Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Pan-African Festival of Algiers, as well as scripted films about the beauty industry, imperialism, and consumer culture.
“I went to town and photographed non-stop, with literally, vengeance,” William Klein had said about his collection of New York City’s street photography from 1954 and 1955, as stated by The New Yorker.
The American artist juggled several lives during decades of incredible creation – working as a painter, street photographer, fashion photographer, designer, bookmaker, writer, documentary filmmaker, and fiction filmmaker. In every sense, he was a visionary, ignoring the social and aesthetic attitudes of the day to carve a distinctive route in his commercial work, personal initiatives, and across all mediums. He created innumerable opportunities for future image creators throughout the world by being innovative and uncompromising. Born on April 19, 1926, on the outskirts of Harlem, Klein fell in love with the art of the European avant garde that he witnessed in the city’s museums. He spent two years in Germany as part of an Allied military rehabilitation operation in 1940s. He also worked as a radio operator, on horseback. Klein’s artistic career began as a painter in post-war Paris, which he called home for the rest of his life. Klein also studied in the legendary artist Fernand Léger’s workshop. His arresting abstract photos have graced the pages of design journals like Domus, as well as books and music LPs. In 1954, he was called back to New York by Alexander Liberman, the art director of Vogue (US). No fashion expertise, but Liberman saw in him an incomparably powerful vision, a desire to explore, and an unusual talent for visual problem-solving.
Klein was realistic about his fashion career. “I accepted the obligation of showing the clothes. Sharp, all the buttons, pleats, and whatever. As long as I did that, I found I could do pretty much what I wanted with the rest – backgrounds, attitudes, situations… Whatever, I guess the editors didn’t care as long as the reader didn’t flip the page too fast,” mentioned the official statement released by ICP.
Revitalising fashion photography by creating scores of classic photos that were full of ironic play and bold technique, Klein was breaking every norm to revolutionise street photography with his love for Dada and pop art in all its roughness and excitement on the streets of New York. His portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, Pelé, and Pharrell Williams from the early 2000s are among the best-loved of his works.
Expanding his art practise to video format, Klein began to make movies at the suggestion of his friend Chris Marker, eventually directing over 30 documentaries on subjects ranging from the boxer Cassius Clay (1964/69), the Pan African Festival of Algiers (1969), and the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver (1970), to late 1960s political protests and the world of professional tennis (1982).
When we look at Klein’s professional choices, we realise that the world sorely needed him to go ahead with it and bestow upon us his vision and creativity. Through his work experience in the United States, France, and Europe, he was at the centre of photography and transformed it significantly. It was the same with fashion, which he transformed from the inside while also satirising. Every Klein frame, whether static or moving, embodies his own aesthetic and spirit: bold and a wild touch, but formally assured and filled with flare. Despite his versatility, this visual sense distinguished him as one of the most unique artists of the second half of the 20th century. Klein, who learned as he worked, enjoyed asymmetrical compositions, heads lopped off, blur, grain, and flare.
Klein is gone but has left behind his work and all of this jazz in the shape of gigantic, black-and-white photos placed frame by frame throughout the art galleries, as well as each of his significant books highlighted on massive television platforms where viewers can witness the supersized pages move past. His opinions on New York resonate with many and continue to take the spotlight. Klein left behind a legacy through dramatic character portraits, with each face and figure clear, alive, and completely there for his camera: a swarm of kids with baseball cards and bubble blowers, a sidewalk full of concerned entrepreneurs, a darting young man rushing through Harlem.
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Vatsala Sethi
Vatsala supports editorial operations of the arts vertical. She worked at a big-four consultancy firm before pursuing her passion for art. She contributed to exhibition curation for art galleries such as Nature Morte and the blockchain-powered platform. As an artist, her studio practice is an amalgamation of oil paintings and technological art.
Vatsala supports editorial operations of the arts vertical. She worked at a big-four consultancy firm before pursuing her passion for art. She contributed to exhibition curation for art galleries such as Nature Morte and the blockchain-powered platform. As an artist, her studio practice is an amalgamation of oil paintings and technological art.
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