In Search of William Klein

Above: William Klein
Above: William Klein

I can’t remember when William Klein’s images first entered my consciousness and burned themselves onto my retina. They seem to have always been there. They were there in the vast multi-coloured Mister Freedom poster in a changing room in the jeans shop Fiourucci in the Kings Road in the early 1970s, in the dense black and white grain of his New York contacts, which I pored over whilst at college in the 1980s and finally in Tatler magazine, which I art directed throughout the 1990s. Klein’s images were the images I wanted to capture, they were the images that inspired me and infuriated me.

How did he do it? How did he see these moments? How did he remain so subversive? How could he be such a great photographer and design such great books all on his own? How could he make such a dismissive and forward-thinking film like Where are You Polly Magoo? and capture the young Cassius Clay and the older, wiser Muhammed Ali in the thriller in Manilla? How could he create documentaries that followed no rules? That made their own rules and then broke those rules? William Klein how did you do it? I needed to know, and I needed to know badly. There was only one way to find out. I had to commission him and meet him. In 1991 commissioning a photographer was not a straightforward or easy business.

William Klein did not need to send me a card with his phone number on it. He was a photographic god and he was shooting very few stills. Klein was at that time a filmmaker who exhibited and sold his stills archive. He rarely added to that archive, he was therefore not on the commissioning circuit and therefore un-contactable unless you knew someone else who had his number. Fortunately, Robin Muir then picture editor on Vogue had a number for Klein but he also had a warning. Now I forget the exact words he used but they were definitely to the effect that Klein wasn’t easy.

I braced myself and dialed the number, a few long dialing tones later, the unmistakable voice of Klein came on the line. His direct no nonsense approach combined with his heavily accented Parisian/Brooklyn accent instantly made me stumble over my words. I was speaking to a photographic legend, and I suddenly felt very small and unworthy. Our conversation begins badly as I garbled my suggestion that he might like to photograph the French/Candian contemporary dance troupe La, La, La Human Steps for me and for Tatler magazine. You can do whatever you want I spewed out, I will not ask anything of you, whatever ideas you have are the ideas we will go with. He said that he wasn’t really shooting stills anymore, he was shooting films, films of dancers, but that he was frustrated with the complicated process and having to deal with finances, so yes, he would do it. What was the magazine again? He asked. “Tatler, it’s a Conde Nast” magazine I repeated. I then received a full run down on the realities of working for Conde Nast as a photographer, but despite his tirade he was going to do it and yes, the fee was okay. We were on, I had commissioned William Klein and it felt good.

The next step was to give the people who oversaw La, La, La Human Steps Klein’s phone number and let them arrange the time and place for the shoot. I was involved no more, and I heard no more from either of them until I received a call from the Human Steps people. The shoot had gone well but they had been threatened with being arrested along with Klein for creating a public disturbance on the Paris Metro. Evidently Klein’s idea for the shoot was to take the whole troupe of physical theatre dancers onto the Metro, to take over a carriage and to have the dancers throw themselves around the carriage, hang from the ceiling and in general turn an afternoon metro carriage into a moving, underground performance space. The prints that arrived from Klein within a few weeks confirmed everything I had been told and they were pure Klein. I loved them and evidently so did he because they appeared in his 1994 book In and Out of Fashion as well as in an issue of Tatler.

Perhaps to tie in with the launch of the book (my memory is good but not that good!) later that year it was announced that Klein would be coming to London as some of his work and films were going to be exhibited at what was then one of the few galleries for photography in London, Hamilton’s. The chance to meet him was too important to pass up for myself and a few photographers I knew in London at the time. This was an age before the many photographic talks, debates, and festivals of today. Klein had not been heard of for years and the opening night of the show was a major event in the photographic calendar for that year.

Entrance was by invitation only, but it was never difficult to gain entrance to Hamilton’s on a private view night and the gallery was packed. I took my time to find the right moment to approach Klein and when an opportunity to introduce myself presented itself, I took a deep breath and said hello to one of my photographic heroes. He was immediately courteous, friendly, and conversational. We spoke of his near arrest and how much he had enjoyed shooting the dancers for me and just for a few moments we felt like friends. He grabbed a copy of a catalogue of his work and in his distinctive graphic handwriting declared that this was in fact the case. ‘To my Friend’ he wrote on the cover and that was enough to make that catalogue the most treasured item in my collection of photography books to this day.

I realized that whilst I had been speaking to Klein a few young photographers (I was of a similar age at the time) who were just making their way in the industry had been watching our conversation. Immediately they wanted to know what we had been talking about and asked to be introduced to Klein. There were two photographers who at the time I knew well and who today are internationally recognized for their work who were the most persistent in asking me to introduce them to Klein, which I was happy to do. One chatted briefly to him without incident, the other began his conversation by praising Klein’s work for Harper’s Bazaar magazine with the great art director Alexey Brodovitch. Klein had never worked for Bazaar or Brodovitch, which he informed the young photographer clearly and directly. The photographer skulked off suitably embarrassed. It was vintage Klein delivered with his characteristic laugh. Now that photographer mixes with world leaders I wonder if he remembers his first meeting with William Klein.

My next meeting with Klein came a few years later thanks to the rebellious nature of the French public and their decision to riot in the streets of Paris. I was still art directing Tatler magazine and I had finally been given a further commissioning opportunity, which I felt was worthy of a call to Klein. Paris was rioting and I wanted Klein to be on the streets recording it for us. A quick phone call and he was out shooting, creating images filled with aggression, movement, and grain just as I had expected and hoped. It remains the commission I am most proud of, and the edited images ran over eight pages of a social magazine for the aristocracy and privileged. The clash of cultures could not have been more pronounced or perfect. The images of Paris marked the end of my opportunities to work with Klein but my love of his work and attitude never faded and I began a mission to own every one of the books featuring his work published. From essential classics such as Life is Good & Good for You in New York and Tokyo to the lesser collected In and Out of Fashion and Italia.

It is a Thursday evening in 2012. I am sitting dressed in black tie at the Sony World Photo Awards dinner. Why? because Klein is about to be presented with an award, an outstanding contribution to photography award. I am on a table next to his, and I can see that his seat is empty. The various awards are awarded but there is no sign of Klein, until just before the final presentation to Klein himself. It is at this point that a stooped, white-haired figure is shuffled in from the side of the stage clutching a walking stick. He is carefully positioned in the seat reserved for him. I wonder who it is until the penny slowly sinks. It’s Klein.

The fifteen years or so since we last met and spoke suddenly seem to be very long indeed. Of course, I expected Klein to have aged just as I certainly have but I did not expect such a fierce figure to have become such a shadow of his former self. I was shocked, upset and I left. The following day I had arranged to meet with Klein. To talk to him about his work and discuss his feelings, opinions and beliefs on photography and filmmaking today. I had been looking forward to the verbal jousting we had always engaged in but now I was just fearful of the kind of conversation we would have. Seeing him so frail had made me realise just how many years had passed since we last spoke. I arrived early as I always do to ensure that my head was right and grabbed a coffee and a comfy seat to await my meeting. The minutes ticked by a member of his entourage apologised that my pre-arranged time for the meeting to start had passed. I said it was not a problem. Time passed. Again, an apology was offered. Time passed. Another apology was offered. Even more time passed and now it was over an hour since our meeting was meant to begin.

Finally, two members of his team appeared in front of me to apologise for the final time and to inform me that Klein had fallen asleep and that there would be no meeting today. In a way I was relieved. I had already decided that the meeting was a mistake. The Klein I had seen the night before was not the one I wanted to speak with, I would find it too sad. I said my goodbyes and left. As days passed, I wrestled with my decision to not push for another meeting with Klein. I wanted to hear what he had to say about photography and filmmaking today, but I had feared that he would not be able to do this. A fellow journalist, who I respect, had spoken with Klein recently and reported back that his conversation had gone exactly the way that I feared mine would. But I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I had ‘chickened out’. I felt that I had to give it one more go.

I took a risk and rang the number in Paris I had rung all those years ago (I still use the same Filofax I did then, so I had no difficulty in finding it) when I had tried to get hold of him for the first time. After a few rings Klein answered the phone. His voice was strong exactly as it had always been. I introduced myself and tried to remind him of our previous meetings and work together. He didn’t remember anything I mentioned. He knew nothing of Tatler magazine, but the mention of its Conde Nast sent him off once again into a series of remembrances and opinions about them just as he had the very first time we spoke. He then stopped himself and said that he had people coming and that he was busy. I suggested we speak another time, and he was non-committal. I said thanks for sparing the few minutes he had and put the phone down. I didn’t ring him back. I was happy with the past and with his images.

But I did go on to YouTube to find some clips from his films, maybe from the influential Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? The seminal Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, or the anarchic Mr.Freedom. I found none of these, but I did find an interview with Klein at a Mexican film festival in which he was the Klein I remembered. In the interview he fields the interviewers’ questions with dismissive, raw humour. He gives insight into his process’s, the social context of his work and how he owes his whole career to the American army. It was what I had hoped my interview would be and more. It had everything I had hoped to discover and share with you. If you want to find William Klein I know where to look. Type William Klein Cinema into the YouTube search panel and then click on William Klein Regis Dialogue with Paulina del Paso. That’s where you will find William Klein and of course in every image he shot and filmed.

But to me the spirit of Klein is best summed up in his own words, “I came from the outside, the rules of photography didn’t interest me… there were things you could do with a camera that you couldn’t do with any other medium… grain, contrast, blur, cock-eyed framing, eliminating, or exaggerating grey tones and so on. I thought it would be good to show what’s possible, to say that this is as valid of a way of using the camera as conventional approaches. That’s my William Klein.

© Grant Scott 2012

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