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 , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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

But today, Klein, once considered photography's bad boy, has been stung by an entirely different bug, that of Handel's "Messiah."

"I've got 14 or 15 different versions, and I often listen to Handel in the morning when I'm doing exercises. It is this huge, huge movement around the world. For centuries now Handel's 'Messiah' is played all over, hundreds of times a year. All different kinds of people are bitten by it. Then I started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to look at the music in relation to the lives of the people singing it?' So that is how the idea for this new film came about." Klein's new film will juxtapose different versions of Handel's "Messiah" with vignettes into the lives of people around the world who sing it.

Klein's "Messiah" film is quickly turning out to be his biggest cinema production yet. He is currently filming all over the world in places as varied as Dublin (where the piece was first performed); Soweto, South Africa; and Las Vegas, Nev.

"Some of these performers are professionals, but many are not," he explains. "There is this group in Soweto that performs regularly. But only a hundred yards away are the hovels in which they live. Around Pittsburgh [Pa.], there is a group of US Steel workers who are retired or were laid off when the mill closed. Singing the 'Messiah' gives them a new focus."

Production continues to expand. "Doing a movie is sort of like a train," he laughs. "It is very difficult to start, but once it's started, it is difficult to stop."

The latest link in the film's production originates in England. British Telecommunications has organized a worldwide "Messiah" benefit to support England's hospice program, an organization designed to provide comfort to people with cancer or AIDS. On Oct. 18, 506 "Messiahs" were sung around the world at 7:30 p.m. Greenwich mean time. It was simultaneously performed in places as far off as New Zealand and moved through Tokyo, Bombay, across Europe, and the Americas. Even an army band played its version of "Messiah" in the Falkland Islands. And Klein had film crews on hand at numerous performances.

"It is going to be an incredible kaleidoscope," he said before the event. "We will even manage to film in places like Lithuania."

Supple creative approach

So how did Klein - the restless creator of "New York" - evolve into a champion of Handel? Klein's photographs rock with a capital "R." They roll. Klein's images even ring with the blues. But they seem to have little in common with the spirit of 18th-century taste.

For Klein, at least, there is no conflict. His supple creative approach is impressive. His ability to shift in subject matter and theme comes as easily to him as working in different mediums.

"I did 'New York,' sure, but I've also done films that were very different. There are a lot of things happening in my work. I have this sense of tragic absurdity with a sort of black Jewish humor mixed with my own graphic sense."

He pauses to reflect. With a laugh, he continues, "I'm still basically American. I still think about when I went to school and had to say the Pledge of Allegiance - you know, that stuff about 'One nation, indivisible under God, with liberty and justice for all.' I'm still a sucker for that. I think life is great, but it is absurd at the same time. When I go back and look at my old photographs, I see that black humor was very strong. I've always seen things from a certain distance, and these are things that still affect my work today."

With a wry smile he adds, "The film is going to look like my work."

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