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William Klein: Hard-Edged Artist Warms to 'Messiah'

Always on the go, his latest project is a film that juxtaposes versions of Handel's work with vignettes into the lives of those who sing it

By James StarttSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1997


His spacious apartment overlooks the sumptuous Luxembourg Gardens. By Paris standards, his place is gigantic. At first glance, it appears an unlikely home for the experimental and iconoclastic artist William Klein. But it does not take long to realize that Klein is about much more than the early photographs that first earned him critical acclaim.

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Graphic tableaus, as well as more recent oversized painted photo contacts, line the walls. And as he talks, he pulls out countless catalogs, pamphlets, and articles that fill in the gaps of his nonstop career as a painter, photographer, graphic artist, and filmmaker.

"When I first came to Paris after the war [World War II], my friends and I quickly turned to the Bauhaus [architectural school founded in Germany in 1919]. Their whole idea of multimedia, interdisciplinary work interested me."

Despite society's current fetish for specialization, Klein still manages to balance his various creative energies. And he's as active as ever. "My wife complains sometimes," he chuckles. "When we go to the country, I still fill my car up with all sorts of things I haven't done. I work all the time really."

Shocking photographs

Klein arrived on the art scene with a big bang. In the space of eight years between 1956 and 1964, he produced four books of photography, which shook the very roots of this medium's young tradition. The books, titled "New York," "Rome," "Moscow," and "Tokyo," are filled with raw, grainy, swirling yet abrupt images, which visually describe these cities in a manner never previously seen before. His pictures of life in these cities speak with an unforgiving realism, but they also make visual the psychological and sociological mood of the time.

Klein coupled his choice of subject matter with equally daring photographic techniques. His varied use of high-grain films, high-contrast printing, blur, and wide angles so shocked the established order of the photography world that he earned a reputation as an anti-photographer's photographer. His street photography stood in opposition to the more picturesque feel of established masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Andr Kertsz.

He struggled to publish his first book "Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels" in 1956, and it was reissued last year for its 40th anniversary - finally christening it as a masterpiece. Only a few blocks from Klein's apartment is the office of Marval Press. The owner, Yves-Marie Marchand, a friend of Klein's, edited the most recent edition of "New York."

"I knew Klein firstly as this revolutionary filmmaker," remembers Mr. Marchand. "I first saw 'New York' in the 1970s, and it just blew me away. Fifteen years after its first printing, it still seemed completely new. And even now, more than 40 years later, Klein's vision of photography, his sense of irony, and his humor remain fresh. No, today there is no question, 'New York' clearly stands as a mythic work."

Although Klein failed to gain popular attention, his mark on the history of photography has been lasting. Along with Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, Klein is one of the formative voices of street photography from the 1950s and '60s.

Shortly after publishing "Tokyo," Klein plunged into a career as a film director. Films such as "Qui tes-vous Polly Maggoo" and "Muhammad Ali the Greatest," while not Hollywood blockbusters, garnered respect and won awards within the cinema community.

Biggest film production yet