Q&A: William Klein

Interview by Conor Risch

© William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London

When William Klein published his first book in 1956, Life is Good & Good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels, a collection of New York City street photographs, he introduced a level of compositional complexity and experimentation to the medium that has influenced generations of photographers. His grainy, high-contrast photographs were often blurred, creating a sense of energy and motion. Klein later went on to publish other books of street photographs made in Rome (1958), Tokyo (1964) and Moscow (1964). Klein also brought his penchant for experimentation to the world of fashion photography, working for Vogue for ten years between 1955 and 1965.
    After he received an Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the Sony World Photography Awards earlier this year, Klein spoke with
PDN from Paris, where he has lived since the end of World War II. He was in the midst of preparing for two upcoming exhibitions of his photos and paintings, and he reflected on his career, and on revisiting his classic street photos and fashion work.  

PDN: You’re credited as one of the first photographers to introduce a lot of complexity into your compositions. Were you aware that you were doing something totally different from other photographers?

WK: I had no photographic training, so I really didn’t know too much about how people took photographs. My first photographs were abstract. I did a mural in Italy with turning panels. When I took the photograph with a long exposure I had somebody turn the panels, they swiveled on the axis, and these geometrical forms blurred. I realized there was another element that came from photography, which could be interesting, and this was blur. So the actual forms became something else, and it was something that only existed in photography. Photography broke all the rules of traditional imagery, because who’s going to paint a group of people cockeyed or heads cutoff or whatever? This is something that happens by accident in photography or on purpose. But the accidents in photography brought other elements into composition, and the portrayal of events and people and settings.

PDN: Can you pinpoint when you became interested in complexity in your compositions?

WK: The first photographs I took seriously were for the book I did on New York, and I had bought a second-hand camera with two lenses and I was frustrated by the 50mm lens. I wanted to get more onto the negative, and I went into a store and they showed me a wide-angle lens and I flipped. I decided that was exactly what I wanted: to cram into the image as much as possible. Of course if you photograph more things, if you get more things on the image, you have to compose them, and so the complexity and the organization of the compositions were obligations.

PDN: Was it difficult to make an image that contained a lot but was composed in a way that it was still readable and interesting to look at?

WK: When I did my book on New York I wanted it to be easy to get the point,
and there were some images that were a little too complicated…and I didn’t use them in the book. Later on, I went back to the original contacts and I chose photographs that I didn’t use in the book.

PDN: What was the point you were trying to get across with your New York book?

WK: I said I’d like to do a book that reminded me of the New York I was brought up on: the tabloids and the covers of the New York Daily News. When I did my photographs, I was inspired by the shitty photographs on the covers of the newspapers. I guess you would call it a pop movement, but my first photographs and the book itself, I was thinking that it was like a tabloid.

PDN: Meaning that you were looking for something sensational?

WK: Something vulgar and blatant, which corresponded to the way I looked at New York.

PDN: When you were making your photographs out on the street, did you have some sense of how elements of an image could become symbols, or was it in your edit that you really started to see symbolism and metaphor in your photographs?

WK: There were some photographs that I realized when I took them that they were symbolic. I have a photograph that I call “Four Heads,” and in that photograph you find four people. There was an Italian cop and a Jewish mama, and there was a black woman and there was another guy, a Puerto Rican. It was a close-up, where I have these four heads looking in four different directions, and it was like a Russian social realistic assemblage of New York, American-types altogether in one shot. When I saw these things I’d say, “Jesus.”

PDN: When you are editing images what do you look for? What do you value in the photographs you decided to publish or exhibit?

WK: This is all very personal. When you see somebody you look at them immediately and you have a vibe, a good or a bad vibe. When I took photographs I got these vibes from people. I was brought up in New York and lived in Paris and came back to New York, and I did photographs for the book and I kept being amazed by what I was seeing. It was like an ethnologist going to Africa or the Amazon and discovering tribes. I was
discovering these New Yorkers like they were Zulus.

PDN: Do you remember the reaction you had to people on the street when you
are editing your photographs, and does the recollection of that feeling have
some influence on the photographs you choose to print or show?

WK: I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten that… I’ve discovered that I would look at a tiny contact and it would all come back to me, the feeling I had at the moment I took that photograph—whether I was tired, whether I was excited, whether it was raining or I’d walked too much. It all came back to me and I think a little photograph on a contact sheet is like the famous madeleine of Proust. [In a story from Proust’s Swann’s Way, the taste of a madeleine inspires involuntary memories in his character Marcel].

In October an exhibition at London’s Tate museum will feature Klein’s photographs alongside works by Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. From September to December, Klein’s London gallery, HackelBury Fine Art, will show both paintings and photographs from Klein’s oeuvre. The gallery and museum exhibitions will also be accompanied by new book publications.

PDN: As you’ve been preparing for your exhibitions and books with the Tate and HackelBury, and going back through a lot of your work, what has it been like to have all of that come back to you, and have you noticed anything new about your work as a result?

WK: I’m doing this second book [published by Contrasto with HackelBury and Howard Greenberg Gallery] with a lot of stuff that has never been published, and in this second book I have paintings I did of still lifes, and people, and abstract photographs and other experiments, and they all come back to me and I’m surprised and sometimes I’m touched. It’s a good feeling.

PDN: When you first got into fashion photography, what did you most like about doing that work?
WK: The money.
PDN: That makes sense. Were there artistic or creative interests there for you?
WK: The thing is, the first work I did, I had one camera and two lenses and that was it. And then when you work with fashion you can use a lot of sophisticated techniques. There’s money, you can rent cameras and lights and make sets, so this was learning about another way of working with photography. And also, most of the setups I did with fashion photography gave me the idea that this would be helpful for doing movies, because you have to work with people, you have to know what you want, you have to make a set, you have to use the landscape or cityscape or whatever. And you had deadlines and had to work fast.

Klein left photography in the late 1960s to work as a film director and writer, creating 24 fictional and documentary films before returning to photographic work in the 1980s.

PDN: Was the transition from photography to filmmaking difficult creatively?

WK: At that time my question to myself was, “What do you do with a photo?” In those days, in 1955, there weren’t photo galleries, there weren’t exhibitions in museums like there are today. There weren’t photographic auctions. You didn’t really know what to do with a photo. If I gave a photograph to somebody, they would maybe put it on the wall with a thumbtack or put it in a drawer and forget about it, and my feeling was that, what do you do with a photograph? You make a book. My idea of the use of photography was to do a book, to juxtapose and to do sequences. I thought that the books that I did at that time were like movies. For me there was this sequencing and scenarios, and I thought they were on the way to movies, and when I started doing movies it was something that became very natural to me.

Klein’s upcoming exhibition with Daido Moriyama at the Tate will trace Klein’s influence on Japanese photography and Moriyama in particular. For more visit the Tate’s Web site here.

In his exhibition at HackelBury Fine Art, Klein will show vintage paintings from the 1940s and 50s, a new mural and new photographic prints. For more information visit HackelBury Fine Art.


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