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William Klein

“Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn't look like somebody else's work.”— William Klein

Compiled in 1954—1955, when Edward Steichen prepared and opened his exhibition The Family of Man, his book New York is a homage to the human turbulence of the metropolis. Klein combines extreme close-ups of faces with merciless excerpts, daring worm's-eye views with blurring. He brings us face to face with city dwellers who, young or old, are not put off by the camera lens and whose reactions to the photographer contribute much to the expressiveness of many scenes. It is thanks to Klein's communication skills that he was able to infuse "anonymous" groups of people with such life. Over the years he would make about 30 films (and over 250 ad spots), on Muhammad Ali (Cassius le grand), the Black Panthers, and other subjects. The dynamism of his photographs already contained a seed of the cinematic. Klein denied both racial segregation and aesthetic categories. In his imagery high and low blend, signs, posters and billboards merge in the great visual melting pot of New York.

Over the following years he photographed in Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo. The city of Paris, on the other hand, though he knew it well and had an apartment there, he approached only with hesitation. Seen through the lens of hundreds and hundreds of earlier photo books, Paris initially seemed to him romantic, foggy, and above all monoethnic, a gray city inhabited by whites. When he finally began to focus on it, Klein discovered the city's modernity, its incredible futurism, by comparison to which New York suddenly looked old-fashioned. Using color film, Klein photographed crowds, demonstrations and riots, not to mention nightclubs, tournaments, and debutante balls. And then the funerals of Charles de Gaulle, Tino Rossi, Charles Trenet, and Yves Montand, with which, ironically, Klein opened his book. No other city, one gains the impression, could boast more civil courage and political consciousness than Paris. Interspersed images from commercial jobs for fashion houses add a note of profligate elegance.

This was Paris before the riots in the banlieus began, which made it clear that the inhabitants inside the periphery lived in a show window to the world and had almost forgotten the hordes of underprivileged immigrants around them.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan

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