William Klein, Who Photographed the Energy of City Life, Dies at 96
Exterior. Daylight. Two boys in a doorway. The older, 11 or 12, holds a revolver aimed at your left eye. He is snarling, ready to kill you. The younger, maybe 8, has the face of an angel. It is a grainy black-and-white photograph, staged circa 1954, titled “Gun 1, New York.”
The visual artist William Klein called it a self-portrait. He was both boys, he said. One grew up angry on the streets of New York and was capable of anything. The other, sensitive and intelligent, settled in Paris as a young man and devoted himself to one artistic pursuit after another.
Mr. Klein, who caught the wit and energy of great cities and satirized the world of fashion with his strikingly original photographs, and portrayed Muhammad Ali and Eldridge Cleaver as iconic rebels in his documentary films, died on Saturday night in Paris. He was 96.
His assistant Pierre-Louis Denis confirmed his death.
One of his generation’s most celebrated photographers, represented in museums across Europe and the United States, Mr. Klein began his career as a restless postwar American in Paris who took a studio on the Left Bank, defied traditions and plunged into his anarchic visions of painting, sculpture, street and fashion photography, feature films and documentaries.
He painted whirling murals and sculptured shapes that moved. His photos looked like accidents. He overexposed negatives, bleached out contrasts and posed subjects to fake illusions of spontaneity. “Klein broke half the rules of photography and ignored the other half,” Jim Lewis wrote in Slate magazine in 2003.
Mr. Klein’s works have been exhibited for more than a half-century in galleries, cinemas and photography retrospectives, most recently at the International Photography Center in Manhattan — the first in his native New York since 1994 — in a show that opened on June 3 and was scheduled to close on Monday.
“Klein’s photographs thrust the viewer into the action of the city with a rude tug,” Arthur Lubow wrote in The New York Times in reviewing that exhibition.
In the 1950s and 60s, Mr. Klein built his reputation with startlingly innovative books of photographs of New York, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo. They were dreamlike images of city life, faces in a crowd blurred by motion or darkly smudged, like scenes glimpsed in a trance. Mr. Klein called New York “the world capital of anguish,” and critics said his photographs mirrored a forbidding, violent and disturbing city.
His early patron was glossy Vogue magazine. It covered expenses to shoot his shadowy urban scenes and for a decade published his fashion work, often sardonic compositions of couture-swathed models caught in traffic on Fifth Avenue, the Via Veneto or the Ginza through wide-angle or telephoto lenses. The pictures were riveting and garish. He called them satires of fashion and of Vogue itself.
“My photographs are mostly parodies,” he said. “The intention was to show how phony the poses were. But nobody complained. I always made sure that you could see the dress.”
Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Vogue’s parent, Condé Nast, regarded Mr. Klein as a pioneer. “In the fashion pictures of the Fifties, nothing like Klein had happened before,” he said. “He functioned like a Fellini, sensing the glamorous and the grotesque.”
Mr. Klein put it another way: “In the fashion world, you can never be too absurd.”
For one fashion shoot, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he posed two elegantly attired white models in front of an abandoned barbershop that he had painted mauve. On an impulse he asked a Black man who was working nearby, dressed in white, to sit alongside them in the window. Vogue editors cropped out the man in the published version.
From the late 1960s to the early ’80s, Mr. Klein abandoned photography and made a score of satirical films and documentaries. His first feature film, “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1966), was a sendup of fashion, with models clad in sheet metal held together with nuts and bolts, and a lovely airhead in the title role. “I have a pimple today,” she says, straining to sift crucial events in her life.
Mr. Klein’s best-known documentary, “Muhammad Ali, the Greatest,” was a two-part study of the fighter’s evolution from the Cassius Clay who defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship in 1964 to the Muslim convert who was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam and then reclaimed it by defeating George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974.
The film, with cameos by the Beatles and a commentary by Malcolm X shortly before his assassination in 1965, captures the excitement of young Black Americans as Ali flaunts arrogant charm, defies the government and becomes a symbol of Black pride.
“So-called battles between good and evil have always obsessed me,” Mr. Klein told The Times in 2003. “Here was Cassius Clay, a clean-cut American. But he became the bad guy because he was Black and had a big mouth. No one took him seriously. When I did Part I of the film, everybody hated it. Everybody hated him until Zaire.”
William Klein was born in Manhattan on April 19, 1926, a son of European immigrants. (Some sources have listed his birth year as 1928, but Mr. Denis, his assistant, confirmed that it was 1926.) His father’s clothing business failed in the Depression. A bright Jewish boy in an Irish neighborhood,William read voraciously, hung out at the Museum of Modern Art and graduated from Townsend Harris High School at 14.
He studied sociology at City College of New York, but dropped out a year before graduation and joined the postwar Army. He served in Germany and France and drew cartoons for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Discharged in 1948, he settled in Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne and studied painting with Fernand Léger.
In 1948, he married Jeanne Florin, whom he had met on his second day in the city. She died in 2005. They had one son, Pierre. He survives him, along with a sister, Caryl Reichman. Mr. Klein still lived in Paris at the time of his death.
Mr. Klein experimented with geometric and abstract painting and sculpture using graphics, moving parts and shifting lights. For one project, in Milan, he painted abstract studies on revolving room dividers. He decided to photograph the effect — his first serious use of the medium — and found the blurred geometric forms a revelation.
“It seemed to me that blur gave another dimension to the lines, squares and circles we were all playing with and was a way out of the hard-edge rut,” he told the author and curator Jane Livingston. “I was intrigued by what could be done with a camera.”`
Approached by Mr. Liberman of Condé Nast, Mr. Klein became a contract photographer for Vogue from 1955 to 1965, and undertook the books on cities that established his early reputation. American publishers rejected his work as vulgar, but it appeared in France in a 1956 volume, “Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels.” It included a 1955 Manhattan cityscape whose slow overexposure made the sunset look like Hiroshima at the moment of its atomic destruction. It was followed by pictorial books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo.
Mr. Klein’s films included “Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther” (1969), a sympathetic portrayal of the author and revolutionary who jumped bail after leading an ambush on Oakland, Calif., police officers and went into exile in Cuba and Algeria; and “Far From Vietnam” (1967), a collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and other film directors protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War.
In later years, Paris remained his home. And while he made films occasionally, Mr. Klein largely returned to his roots in photography, which critics called his strongest art form. There were exhibitions in London, Barcelona, Paris and many other venues, including New York.
“Klein’s New York is a city of night, even in daytime,” Katherine Knorr wrote in The International Herald Tribune in 1996, “a vertiginous place where the eye starts with the sky and stops on a display for toy sheriff’s badges, where almost everything inanimate dwarfs the onlooker, ads mock passersby, the buildings are big but the living space isn’t, that face in the crowd is everyman on anyday.”
A 2003 book of photographs, “Paris + Klein,” portrayed the city of fashion and fine dining as a freak show of boulevard cafes where ladies in millinery ate with plastic forks on paper plates.
“As usual, Mr. Klein rubs our faces in urban grime and dares us to be offended,” the photography critic Richard B. Woodward wrote in The Times. “It’s a New Yorker’s razz of Paris, just as his 1954-55 photographs of New York were inflected by a Gallic film noir sensuality. This dual identity has allowed Mr. Klein to move easily between two worlds and yet cast himself as a perpetual outsider.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.