Focal Hero
Wallpaper|June 2017

Now almost 90 and still working, William Klein is one of the giants of 20th-century photography. His work includes gritty street shots such as the collection Life is Good & Good for You in New York, groundbreaking fashion images for US Vogue, documentary and fiction films such as Muhammad Ali, The Greatest and Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, as well as abstract painting and photography. In all cases, Klein’s graphic punch and sassy wit are instantly recognisable. At Photo London at Somerset House, 18-21 May, he will present two new 9m photographic murals. Wallpaper* talked to the artist in his Paris apartment about these works and his 70 years of pioneering image-making

David Campany

Where did it all begin? 

I was born in Harlem, New York, in 1928. I loved art and hung out at the Museum of Modern Art. It showed painting and sculpture, but also photography, graphic design and movies. It was like a second home to me. I wanted to get to Europe, to be a painter. I was in Paris by 1947, studying in the studio of Fernand Léger. He thought young artists should look beyond the gallery – to architecture, the street, new media. I went pretty quickly from figurative painting to abstract murals. Then a Milanese architect asked me to turn a mural into a room divider made of rotating panels. With my wife, Jeanne, I was photographing these panels and, in the camera’s long exposure, the rotations blurred, creating new forms. That was kind of interesting. So I went into my darkroom and made abstract photos, with light shining through shapes cut in pieces of card, moving them around to produce patterns on the paper. 

That’s a quick hopscotch! This moving between media is reminiscent of the Bauhaus. 

The Bauhaus approach really impressed me. Having no rules, experimenting – that was how I felt. I wanted the freedom to explore what was possible. I had a few shows of those abstracts and, in a 1954 exhibition in Paris, they were seen by Alex Liberman, the art director at US Vogue. He asked if I wanted to work for him. I was getting into 35mm photography, shooting on the streets, and I wanted to see New York again. When I got there, it was a mess. Dirty and chaotic. I went about showing it in grainy black and white. Vogue was paying for all my materials so I shot like crazy, all over the city. And at night I printed like crazy, going through boxes and boxes of paper. It soon turned into a book, but it was too harsh for an American audience, too negative for the 1950s. I published it in Europe. 

That photobook, New York (1956), became incredibly influential. I hear you did everything on it. 

Yeah, the photos, the layout, the captions written in a kind of Dada-tabloid jargon. It was really graphic, with over-inked blacks and a candy-coloured cover. 

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