Klein, William

American (1928-)

William Klein (1928) has always been something of an outsider. After his father’s business collapsed on the eve of the Great Depression, his affluent family moved to a rougher neighborhood. A young Jew, he was often teased and bullied by the Irish immigrant kids and he sought refuge in the halls of the Museum of Modern Art. More advanced than his classmates, he enrolled in the City College of New York at 14, where he had a hard time making friends with students four years his senior. Upon graduating, he served two years in the army in France where, finally, he felt he fit in. But upon enrolling at the Sorbonne in Paris (1948), Klein found himself encouraged to be “an outsider”: the famed art school suggested that galleries and museums were growing obsolete and encouraged students to take to the streets with their art.

Klein began by painting – influenced by the Bauhaus movement and Mondrian – in a spare, abstract style. And his pictures – blurry, out-of-focus, overexposed and grainy – earned him a “bad boy” reputation in the photography world. This didn’t prevent Vogue, however, from hiring Klein to return from France to produce a photographic diary of New York City, in the hope that his time away would yield an interesting perspective. Instead, they were offended by his shots, which portrayed the city as vulgar, crude and crass. The rest of world loved the book, though, earning Klein the Nadar Prize and commissions to do the same for Rome, Moscow and Tokyo. In the 60s and 70s, Klein tried his hand at filmmaking – largely documentary – and also received commissions from the fashion world. Klein’s fashion shots are distinctive, seemingly uninterested in the models or the clothing, preferring instead to play with varying lenses, flash bulbs and exposure times.