An international jury at Photokina 1963 voted William Klein one of the 30 most
important photographers in the medium’s history. He became famous in Europe
immediately upon publication of his strikingly intense book of photographs, Life I
Good for You in New York – William Klein Trance Witness Revels, for which he
won the Prix Nadar in 1956.
novel framing and printing procedures to make images in a fragmented, anarchic
mode that emphasized raw immediacy and highlighted the photographer’s presence in the scene.
Among Klein’s other books (for which he did the design, typography, covers, and
texts) are expressive portraits of Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo. His influence upon
other photographers since the late 1950s has been underground but pervasive.
Born and raised in New York, Klein graduated from high school at age 14 and
subsequently studied sociology at City College of the City of New York. After two
years in the United States Army, where he worked as an army newspaper cartoonist, he attended the Sorbonne, Paris, on the G. I. Bill. He studied painting with Fernand Léger and has lived in Paris since 1948, working as a painter, graphic
designer, photographer, and filmmaker.
Klein exhibited throughout Europe as a painter, producing abstract murals for French and Italian architects. He first photographed his murals in motion in 1952 and began experimenting with the medium. He was very much influenced at this time by the work of Man Ray, Alexander Rodchenko, the Dadaists, and the Bauhaus.
Klein revisited New York in 1954 and began his documentation of the city, hurling
himself into the urban chaos. He worked in direct opposition to the model of
elegance and discretion he saw in the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Klein first took up filmmaking in 1958. In 1965, he abandoned still photography to
concentrate on films for the cinema and television. His best known works in this
medium are Cassius the Great (a film on Muhammad Ali) and Loin du Vietnam,
on which he collaborated with directors Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and others.
He has completed over 20 films in the last 25 years.
Klein has exhibited throughout the world at Fuji Gallery, Tokyo; Stedelijk Museum,
Amsterdam; Photokina, Cologne; and The International Center of Photography an
the Witkin Gallery, New York. He was honored in 1978 at the Arles Festival
International. An exhibition of his early work was held at the Museum of Modern
Art, New York, in 1980-1981, at which time John Szarkowski wrote: “Klein’s
photographs of twenty years ago were perhaps the most uncompromising of their
time. They were the boldest and superficially the most scrofulous – the most
distanced from the accepted standards of formal quality …. They really extend what
life can look like in pictures. They enlarge the vocabulary.”
Klein was the subject of an Aperture monograph in 1981. He returned to still
photography part-time in 1978 and continues to live and work in Paris.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Photography (1984)