William Klein

Galerie Zabriskie

After 45 years as an American in Paris, photographer William Klein speaks an effortless, nearly accentless French, but he still expresses himself with the brashness, the humor, and the ironic edge of a native New Yorker. There is something of the same incongruous mix in his photographs. For all that has been made of his iconoclastic subjects and shooting style—the wide-angle distortions, the grainy images, the multiple exposures, the camera movement that have always been his trademark—the image itself is communicated with the elegant formalism of a painter.

Klein himself makes no secret of the fact that he came to Paris to study painting and that he was profoundly influenced by his studies with Fernand Léger in the late ’40s. In fact, Klein seems to have spent all of three weeks in Léger’s workshop, but this was enough to get him into the street with a camera, to make him conceive his projects in terms of books rather then exhibitions, and to open him up to an expanded notion of “visual art” that was to include not only photography but film.

In and Out of Fashion, which is the title of Klein’s latest film, book, and exhibit (in that order), is one more illustration of the French master’s precepts, as well as the New York pupil’s ironic twist. Klein began doing fashion photography in 1954 at the invitation of William Lieberman, art director of Vogue magazine. He was fired from Vogue in 1967 after he participated in Loin de Viêt-nam (Far from Vietnam), the French omnibus film protesting the war of the same name. By the early ’60s he was already involved in film (and his first feature, Qui êtes-vous, Polly Magoo [Who are you, Polly Magoo?, 1965] was to be a blistering satire of fashion and the media). But the fact is that after he took up photography again in the ’80s, he also made his way back to the world of fashion. Like demonstrations, celebrity funerals, and political conventions, the backstage arenas of designer fashion shows continue to provide him with raw material for his ethnology of the crowd.

This exhibit of 56 photos dating from the mid ’50s to the present was, like the book and the film that have preceded it, a montage of Klein’s photographic wanderings “in and out of fashion.” With meticulously casual disregard for the rules of the game, Klein transformed the gallery into a giant storyboard, where each wall, large or small was devoted to a carefully composed sequence. The early ’60s were juxtaposed with the late ’80s, black and white with Cibachrome, the high fashion of Vogue with the exuberance of popular culture, (Fête de l’Indépendence, Dakar [Independence celebration, Dakar, 1963]) or the vulgarity of Houston’s ten best-dressed women (Les dix femmes les plus élégantes, Houston, 1986).

In the end, this elaborate mise-en-scène has remarkably little to do with fashion, in or out. What lingers in the mind’s eye is hardly the clothing but the photos. They are full of energy, movement, and quite often, provocation. But they are (ironically) permanent, outside of fashion; their photographic instant is anchored in a visual continuum of light and shade, surface, and depth, focus and blur. They are the reminder that Klein came to Paris to study painting and that as Léger taught him, art is not a product but a vision.

Miriam Rosen