* “Master Profiles” is a series profiling all the great photographers of uncontrolled life. Unlike the rest of the blog, I’m doing these in a straight profile format to make it easy for quick access to facts, quotes and knowledge on all the masters. I’ll also group them together here every time I add a new one.
William Klein (1928-Present)
American photographer known for creating his own influential style that ignored all the rules.
Born: April 19, 1928 in New York, New York, USA
William Klein grew up in New York City, but after joining the US Army and being stationed in France, he decided to stay in Paris following his discharge. He first studied painting under the famous Fernand Leger, but after focusing on abstracting paint and sculpture, he moved his focus to photography.
In 1952, during an exhibition of his kinetic sculptures, he met Alexander Liberman, the art director for Vogue magazine. This meeting led to fashion photography work and city photo essays for the magazine, which also led to the beginning of Klein’s success and fame.
In 1954, he returned to New York City to work on a book of photographs of the city. This work, titled New York, later won the Prix Nadar award in 1957.
While his photographs were considered revolutionary for his unique approach, they weren’t loved by all. Klein never had any formal training in photography and wasn’t as concerned with rules and technical aspects as much as others in the field. He looked for an ironic approach to photography, using his own unique style. He favored a wide-angle, up-close look and didn’t mind motion blur. His photos could be considered vulgar, raw, and gritty with a bit of dark humor.
Klein described his early realization with photography, “I realized there was another element that came from photography, which could be interesting, and this was blur. So the actual forms became something else, and it was something that only existed in photography. Photography broke all the rules of traditional imagery, because who’s going to paint a group of people cockeyed or heads cutoff or whatever? This is something that happens by accident in photography or on purpose. But the accidents in photography brought other elements into composition, and the portrayal of events and people and settings.”
Klein is credited with creating a new style in photography, but he’s also well known for his attitude and approach that did it his way without caring what others thought. His revolutionary approach to photography, by throwing out all the rules and ignoring the status quo, has gained him many followers in the photography world, while his work has been one of the biggest influences on the street photography scene, where he is considered among the fathers of the genre.
Klein also directed different films, documentaries, and television commercials during his career. His documentary work covering Muhammed Ali and his film Mr Freedom gained him plenty of recognition outside of photography too. He still lives in Paris and continues to photograph today. Klein was recently awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award from Sony World Photography Awards and had an exhibition in New York covering a retrospective on his documentary filmmaking work.
- Gritty, Black & White
- Vulgar & Raw
- In Your Face
- Wide Angle, Cramming Elements in the Frame
- Culture, Dark Humor
- Sometimes Blurry, Not Worried About Being Technically Perfect
Camera: Leica Rangefinder Lens: Wide-Angle (21mm-28mm)
Klein experimented with a range of lenses and focal lengths, but focused on wide-angle more than any. 28mm was his preferred lens, partly because wider lenses were more rare early in his career, but he’s gone as wide as 21mm. Klein liked using a lens that would allow him to get up close to the action while still being able to fit many things in the frame. As for cameras, he hasn’t only shot Leica, but is most known for using their rangefinders. He’s also done some work with the Leica R, an SLR camera.
“I didn’t relate to European photography. It was too poetic and anecdodtal for me…. The kinetic quality of New York, the kids, dirt, madness–I tried to find a photographic style that would come close to it.So I would be grainy and contrasted and black. I’d crop, blur, play with the negatives. I didn’t see clean technique being right for New York. I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter like the New York Daily News.”
“Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work.”
“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.”
“I have always loved the amateur side of photography, automatic photographs, accidental photographs with uncentered compositions, heads cut off, whatever. I incite people to make their self-portraits. I see myself as their walking photo booth.”
“I wanted to do something altogether vulgar.”
“Sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened. I’d rush into crowds—bang! bang! … It must be close to what a fighter feels after jabbing and circling and getting hit, when suddenly there’s an opening, and bang! Right on the button. It’s a fantastic feeling.”
“I have always done the opposite of what I was trained to do… Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”
“If you look carefully at life, you see blur. shake your hand. Blur is a part of life.”
“My photographs are the fragments of a shapeless cry that tries to say who knows what… What would please me most is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.”
“Anybody who pretends to be objective isn’t realistic.”
The Many Lives of William Klein
William Klein: Contact Sheets
William Klein was always his own man and brought his own vision to photography because of it. Tell me what you all think about his work in the comments below! Do you have any favorite shots? Does his work impact you as much as others?