William Klein

Zabriskie Gallery | Paris

Like memory, travel, or speaking a foreign language, black and white photographs impose a certain ironic distance on experience. In the work of William Klein, this inherent irony assumes the weight of style. During the mid ’50s Klein led a singular assault on the etiquette of street photography; armed with a wide-angle lens and an open flash, he produced a book of crowded, grainy, shifting, and/or distorted images of New York City, published under the uncommon title, Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, 1956. The occasion was Klein’s first (and clearly combative) return to New York after six years as a youthful American in Paris: visits to other cities were to yield Rome, 1958, Moscow, 1964, and Tokyo, 1964, while a long-term contract with Vogue resulted in a parallel corpus of iconoclastic fashion photos over the same period. In the mid ’60s, though, Klein decided to become a full-time filmmaker (he had already done a number of shorts and documentaries), and it was not until 1979 that he took up the still camera again.

With only two exceptions, all of the black and white photos shown here are recent, postpause works. At first glance, they still give the impression of “classic” Klein; the crowd and the crowded composition, the sea of faces, bodies, blurs, and reflections pushed against the edge of the photo. But there are differences, too. Klein’s crowds, for example, have become much less random (and somewhat more chic); instead of finding them on street corners, he has sought them out at all sorts of events, from political demonstrations and rock concerts to fashion shows, wrestling matches, and bullfights. In addition, the man/woman in the street has been joined by the occasional celebrity—singers Enrico Macias and Ray Lema at a tennis match, Grace Jones at a French Bicentennial celebration, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson at ease with his new girlfriend.

In short, the angry young man of the ’50s is clearly older and less angry, and the earlier edge of provocation is largely gone—not only from the subjects, but also from the insurgent esthetic that has now had 35 years to become standard photographic fare. But even so, Klein is still the American in Paris, the inveterate outsider. Often, as with the bullfights in Arles (“I don’t much like bullfights and don’t understand anything about them,” he writes by way of a caption in one), the sumo wrestling matches in Tokyo, or the Mr. France quarter-finals in Paris, he seems to look for situations that are alien to him. But whatever the subjects, and his feelings for or against, they usually turn out to be shot from the sidelines—the edge of the crowd, or the wings of the fashion show, or the other side of the finish line—and they are anything but intimate.

If Klein’s images of lonely crowds are disconcerting social documents, they are also very beautiful photographs. Lush in their textures, tones, and volumes, they are just as beautiful as they are topical. Danseuses constructivistes (Constructivist dancers, 1989), for example, from J. P. Goude’s Bicentennial parade last July, is a veritable homage to Fernand Leger (Klein’s onetime mentor) in its exquisite human geometry. Once again, the outsider’s eye and its ironic distance would seem to be at work behind this dual vision of the timely and the timeless. And Klein is undoubtedly his own best biographer when he calls himself a “Piero della Francesca-reporter.”

Miriam Rosen