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Photography trailblazer William Klein dies at the age of 96

William Klein, the New York-born, Paris-based multi-hyphenate creative best known as a photographer and film director, passed away at 96.

In 1946 William joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany, where he won his first camera in a poker game. After relocating to Paris in 1948, he continued his studies at the Sorbonne with the assistance of the G.I. Bill. At the time, his focus was abstract painting and sculpture. After studying with the French artist Fernand Léger, Klein’s early career breaks came from two exhibitions in Milan, where he was discovered by the architect Angelo Mangiarotti.

Mangiarotti asked Klein to recreate one of his abstract paintings one the rotating room dividers of a Milanese apartment, which was his first commissioned work. The experience of documenting these panels in motion led him to reconsider photography.

Jeanne Klein, with the Angelo Mangiarotti painted turning panels, Milan, 1952

This collaboration sent him into the world of photography. After seeing an exhibition of Klein's kinetic sculptures as a group show, the Art Director of Vogue, Alexander Liberman, asked him to do some photography series for Vogue.
Klein's work for Vogue spawned many photographic essays shot in various cities, where Klein documented the beautiful and the grotesque, all within wide-angle and telephoto shots.

William Klein once called a retrospective exhibition of his body of work Yes” and explained to the curator why:  “I said ‘yes’ to everything. If an opportunity came along and I could do it, even if it was a little outside of my comfort zone, I said ‘yes,’ because you never know what it will lead to.”

William Klein, Nina + Simone, Piazza di Spagna, Rome (Vogue), 1960

Klein used cities and real people as backdrops in his shots, he sent models into the streets and up on rooftops coming up with colorful ideas for the shoots.
Above he sent two models in sculptured dresses with stripes out on a zebra crossing in Rome to walk back and forth, while he, with his camera, was far away to get the shot. Men mistook the ladies for prostitutes and Vogue had to stop the shoot after some men propositioned the models.

It didn't deter Klein, who continued to send models out in the cities he worked in, pioneering new techniques. He also created one of the most influential and mythical photo books in history, Life is Good & Good for You in New York in 1956.

“I had this idea to create my own locations in New York. This was an abandoned barber shop. I painted the background rose. The guy worked in a fast-food joint next door. When it was published in Vogue, they cropped him out of the picture.”

William Klein, Antonia Simone Barbershop, New York, 1961
William Klein, Gun, New York, 1955

Despite his success in the field of fashion photography, that wasn't where his passion lay, he even parodied it in his satire film Who Are You, Polly Magoo?/ Qui-Êtes Vous Polly Maggoo? (1966).

The recipient of numerous awards, Klein was honored with a Commander of Arts and Letters in France in 1989, the Medal of the Century by the Royal Photographic Society in London in 1999, the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, and the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards.

Klein had long since settled in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens in an apartment furnished with his wife's artwork. Their romance is often seen as fashion's greatest love story. Jeanne Klein née Florin was once one of the most sought-after models in Paris even though she tried to avoid it, but her modeling as a muse for her husband skyrocketed his career. “My wife was incredibly beautiful, and people would stop her on the street. They would say, ‘Why don’t you go to Vogue and do photographs?’ And she was from this semi-aristocratic family and she thought that was very vulgar, and being a model was not something she thought was cool.”

The year after she died, in an interview with Paris Match, Klein sighed “Tout ce que j’ai enterpris, je l’ai fait pour elle.”;“Everything I did, I did for her.”

William Klein, Backstage “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?,” 1966.

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Andreas-Udd's picture

Fantastic body of work. One of my all time favorite artists.

Dabitch's picture

Yes, a great body of work. Dave Trott reminded me on Twitter about this amazing film too "Broadway by lights". I can't help but think that it subconsciously or consciously inspired this jazzy iPhone ad "Apple - One Night Shot on iPhone 7" in 2017.

aiiobo's picture

I loved his work. He inspired everything, including that iconic Barney's ad campaign in the 90s with Linda Evangelista.

Dabitch's picture

You mean the one shot by Steven Meisel? Yes, probably, that and old Dior images.

Robbotman's picture

So many greats have obituaries here now, it's a little sad.

Dabitch's picture

I wish I didn't have to write them.