The return of William Klein.

The return of William Klein.

The return of William Klein.

The big picture.
April 25 2003 11:13 AM

Comeback Kid

William Klein's paeans to New York and Muhammad Ali.

Click here to see a slide show of the artist's work.

Moves + Pepsi, Harlem, 1955
Moves + Pepsi, Harlem, 1955

If you live in New York and have a tendency toward monomania, you could spend a day as follows: Begin at Hermès on Madison Avenue, where there's a show of William Klein's photographs of Paris; stop by a bookstore and pick up copies of Paris + Klein—the book from which the show is drawn—and William Klein Films, another new book; scoot down to Gallery 292 in SoHo for a collection of William Klein's photos of Tokyo; make your way to Penn Station and hop a train to Philadelphia to see the exhibition of William Klein's cityscapes at the Museum of Art; rush back to New York and head over to the French Institute for a retrospective of William Klein's short films; and then—if you're not surfeited, purblind, or comatose—swing down to the Film Forum for the late showing of William Klein's The Greatest, a feature-length documentary about Muhammad Ali.

Autoportrait, 1993
Autoportrait, 1993

It would be a day well-spent. Klein is one of the most prodigious figures in contemporary photography, and the marathon outlined above represents only a cross section of his work. On top of it are the studies of Moscow and Rome, the fashion photographs he took for Vogue from 1955 to 1965, and the experiments in mixed media (painting and photography) that he's been making for the past decade or so. These, too, will no doubt be showing somewhere soon: At 75, Klein has come home to New York—not literally (he's lived in France since 1948) but in the city's cultural imagination. It's a fitting return. Klein called his first collection of photographs Life Is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956), and the title shares a certain attitude with the pictures inside and the streets they capture: a celebratory stance coupled with a wiseass smile; a city-boy cockiness; a makeshift, grabbed beauty; and a sense that if two of anything is a pleasure, then a dozen must be an epiphany.

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Klein's New York is Gotham by way of Hart Crane:

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft

A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,

Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,

A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Atomic Sky, New York, 1955
Atomic Sky, New York, 1955

There must be hundreds of photography books dedicated to New York; Life Is Good is one of the best. The street was Klein's studio. If Klein's contemporary Robert Frank represented the pensive, saturnine side of midcentury photography, Klein caught the other side: His pictures crack smart, like the characters in The Sweet Smell of Success; they are cheerfully cynical, quick, and rough. He shot in black and white with a wide-angle lens to take it all in, overexposed his negatives until the images were blasted, and printed them at high contrast so the details are bleached out and the shadows are sooty and grainy. Often the figures are blurred, as if someone had jostled his camera or impatiently darted out of the frame just as the shutter clicked. Klein broke half the rules of photography and ignored the other half, and when he first published his pictures, he offended nearly everyone. Vogue, in a touching if misplaced act of faith, had commissioned the New York work; when they saw what he'd done, they refused to print it. The American publishers Klein canvassed were every bit as averse to it. The book finally came out under the imprimatur of a Parisian press; it was not reprinted in the United States until 1995. As I write it is, unbelievably, out of print again.

Klein went on to publish a few more books on cities—Moscow, Tokyo, Paris—but in time he turned away from still photography. By the early '60s, he had begun making movies, many of them on political matters. (American foreign policy gets mocked and harassed in films like Mister Freedom; then again, so does his adopted homeland in The French.) But the culmination of his cinematic work is a relatively straightforward documentary called MuhammadAli the Greatest.

Muhammad Ali wins in Zaire, 1974
Muhammad Ali wins in Zaire, 1974
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Klein's may not be the best documentary on Ali as an athlete (that title goes to William Greaves'Ali, the Fighter), but it's the best evocation of Ali as a cultural dervish—the kid who willed himself into a fame and a belovedness unmatched in the 20th century. Klein got into Ali's camp early, before the legendary Liston fight in Miami in 1964. The fighter was still Clay then, a 22-year-old with little to show for himself beyond his big mouth and his Olympic gold medal. The first part of the film is in black and white, and Klein's camera seems to be everywhere: There is Clay, getting over on sheer bravado; there are his Louisville backers, corpulent white men chomping on fat cigars; there—by God—are the Beatles, nice boys brought by for a photo op; and there is Malcolm X, his every gesture and sentence deployed with the extraordinary precision that comes from contained rage.

Photographers don't always make the best filmmakers—the media are as different as poetry and prose—but Klein has a very confident touch, and his eye seems to be uncannily prescient. When he picks up Ali's story again, at the '74 fight with Foreman in Zaire, everything intimated in the earlier section has come to pass. Ali is a man, now, and a Muslim; the Louisville old guard is gone; racial politics are at once more complex and starker; the stage upon which the bout is fought is no longer a corner of Miami—it's the whole world; and a decade's worth of exhaustion seems to show in everyone's eyes.

Dance in Brooklyn, NY, 1955
Dance in Brooklyn, NY, 1955

Looking back over Klein's career, you could say that he corrupted and degraded photography—and a good thing he did, too, because at the time the medium needed very badly to be rescued from its own tendency toward preciousness. (Think Edward Weston, Minor White.) But these days his reputation is greater outside his profession than within it. In part that's because the country he chose for his exile gives him little opportunity to exercise his influence: France has fewer interesting, young photographers than America, Germany, England, or Japan. Moreover, Klein is entirely sui generis. You can trace a line from, say, Walker Evans to Robert Frank to Larry Clark to about a quarter of the photographers working today—not a perfectly straight line but a line nonetheless. You can trace another from August Sander to Bernd and Hilla Becher to Thomas Struth. But Klein seems to have no real forebears, and no real followers either.

No surprise there: It's hard to follow a man who moves so quickly. He seems to have done everything, and this month, at least, he seems to be everywhere. Or in any case, all over New York—to be gazed on by the city, as he once gazed on it.

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Click here to see a slide show of the artist's work.