William Klein on Fashion, New York and Photography

A month shy of his 85th birthday, the influential postwar photographer, filmmaker, painter and graphic artist sat down for an interview with WWD.

NEW YORK — William Klein is in no great hurry — that was painfully clear during a 90-minute wait Wednesday afternoon at Howard Greenberg’s 57th Street gallery here. Handlers apologized, but none dared knock on the door to try to wrap up one interview to start the next. “He’s awfully slow putting on his socks,” one explained. “I know. I did it for him.”

The wait provided plenty of time to drink in “William Klein: Paintings, Etc.,” a sampling of his early paintings and experiments in photography spanning nearly a half-century and now on show at the gallery.

A month shy of his 85th birthday, the influential postwar photographer, filmmaker, painter and graphic artist is consumed by more important things than inconvenienced reporters. In addition to two new books about his work, there is a series of his films being shown at the Museum of Art and Design through April 25. While Klein trained as a painter and studied under Fernand Léger, he became more widely recognized in the mid-Fifties for his fashion and street photography. A born-and-bred New Yorker, he has spent most of his life in Paris “because there is a lot less bulls–t,” he says. There, in a strange twist of irony, he won the Prix Nadar in 1957 for “New York,” a book of photographs taken during a brief return to his hometown in 1954.

During Wednesday’s winding conversation, Klein was opinionated, insightful and, at times, intentionally off-putting. What will he do while in New York? “Pick up girls.” The artist was also reluctant to offer up the name of his actress girlfriend with whom he will be making a film. “You’re a real busybody,” he said with a laugh before spelling Ana Padrão.

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Willing as he was to list his dislikes (there were many), Klein did speak poignantly about his career, and the interlocking worlds of fashion and photography. He is inclined to speak in the present tense when recalling the past. Klein was more dead-on when talking art.

“I find it satisfying that what I’ve done in photography has had so much influence in how people take photographs and what they look at and how they look at things,” he said. “Fashion photography I couldn’t care less. I did it for money and for also the possibilities of developing my skills technically.”

Here, more of Klein’s views:

WWD: Why do you prefer Paris?
William Klein:
Paris is a place where a lot of things have been done on every level and there is less the atmosphere of “Ooh la, look at us.” I grew up on 109th Street [in Manhattan]. My father was like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” He was convinced that New York is the center the world and America is the land of opportunity. He didn’t have much opportunity or maybe he did but he never really made much of it.

WWD: How did you first get into street photography in the Fifties?
People weren’t used to having somebody walking around with a camera taking their photograph. There wasn’t much reaction. Most people thought, “If this guy with a camera is taking my picture, well, he has a right to.” Also people like to be convinced they are worth photographing. There used to be a TV program called “Queen for a Day,” and being photographed was something flattering. If someone would ask me a question, I would bulls–t them. I’m a New Yorker. I would say, “I’m working for the [Daily] News as that Inquiring Photographer.” People would ask, “When is it coming out?” And I would tell them, “Tomorrow. We work fast.”

WWD: Do you miss America at all?
Some things. I miss a lot of the new films. Have you seen Harmony Korine’s new film “Spring Break?” Have you ever gone on a spring break in college?

WWD: Why did you get started in street photography?
I would see things in New York that gave me the impression that this meant something and I would document it. I would photograph the stand in front of a candy store where you would see the newspapers lined up. The [New York] Daily News would have the headline, “Gun Man Caught in Love Nest” or whatever. You would see “Gun,” “Gun,” “Gun,” one next to each other. On the top of the newsstand there would be a little plate where somebody could take a newspaper and put their four cents on the little plate. It was a traditional object that said a lot about life in New York at that period. The candy store owner trusted people to pay for the newspaper and, secondly, it worked.

WWD: Why do you have a sense for capturing people as they are?
I had this feeling if I photograph this group of people moving this way and that way, with the combination of the architecture and the typography and everything, then all my ideas about New York would come into place. And within two hundredths of a second, I would get this image. To me, it was kind of like hunting. Before that, I was doing paintings that were very thought-out and geometrical. Photography was a kind of liberation. It was all about talking about things that I couldn’t put in the abstract geometrical paintings and I welcomed that.

WWD: What do you think of how widespread street photography has become today?
We can learn from the works of an amateur photographer — Kennedy’s assassination, Los Angeles police who beat up Rodney King. It’s one way for us to know about things we otherwise wouldn’t. What’s very funny is when you see amateurs filming something, they do some things no professionals would dare to do. They instinctively do things that are very avant-garde and useful. What do I think? I think it’s a good idea.

WWD: What strikes you looking back at your fashion photography?
In the late Fifties and early Sixties, I used to think that most of these fashion creators weren’t that great and if the photograph was good, it was mostly thanks to the photographer. The photographers had more talent than the designers — people like Guy Laroche or [Pierre] Balmain. [Cristóbal] Balenciaga was like a pope of couture. If I was assigned by Vogue to do a story on Balenciaga, it was a headache because he didn’t want the photographer, the model or anything outside of his creation to be the star of the operation. He would have these very ordinary models so they wouldn’t take away from any of the interest of the photograph. They were just there to put a suit or a dress on so you would concentrate on doing a portrait of the clothes and not glorify the gesture or allure of the model.

WWD: Didn’t Balenciaga prefer not to be photographed, which is counter to the way things are now?
He was a reclusive character. He also thought his clothes made the statement. There was no need for him to waste time with the photographer. I don’t remember reportages on Balenciaga himself.

WWD: What interests you now in terms of fashion?
There are designers who knock me out. Jean Paul Gaultier is full of ideas and is very funny. I’m not that much interested in genius inventions of fashion designers. I asked somebody in the fashion world, “What is Alexander Wang about?” He said, “Well, he used to do T-shirts and parkas.” Now for me, that’s enough. T-shirts and parkas — what else do you want? It’s like people taking photographs — there are so many designers jerking off in the fashion world, I could do without 99 percent of them. Bernard Rudofsky did a book a long time ago called “Are Clothes Modern?” For him, basic traditional clothes like the sari, the toga and Greek sandals were enough. Who needs all these so-called inventions? He did a show at the MoMA. He was really censored by the fashion world, by the people who said, “Oh this is good, this is bad.” There were people who were like icons — Christian Dior and [Yves] Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent did the safari and the tuxedo and was vastly applauded for that. But the safari existed and so he adapted the safari to women of his day. And the tuxedo you would see in a Marlene Dietrich film. A lot of the clothes that influenced were done in the movies.

WWD: Of the different mediums you work in, which is the most gratifying?
Films, because I find people don’t know how to read photographs. There isn’t this dialogue. Many people look at a photograph in an exhibition, they look at the title below and they snicker, “Ha,” as if you caught somebody picking their nose, which is not my preoccupation. What you put in a photograph is not always perceived by the other people who look at them as what you wanted to say. There isn’t a culture of photography. You learn about music appreciation at schools or go to museums, but I found that generally people don’t study photography. There are a lot of things that can be said in photographs but people don’t relate to them.

WWD: What have you seen recently that you have really been impressed by?
I think Damien Hirst who does the little dots is amazing [laughing.] No, I think that’s bulls–t. I think that Damien Hirst putting a shark in a bath of formaldehyde is nothing. The Pop artists were interesting because they came along and said a can of Campbell’s soup [would be interesting] if you reproduce it. I am impressed by Marcel Duchamp who did a urinal, put it in a museum show and said, “So what are you people jerking yourselves off about? This is a work of art.”

WWD: When you shoot a photo, do you have a very clear idea about what you want people to take from it?
Generally, yes and within that idea there are specifics. You have your take on culture, politics or something. Then you see something that illustrates that, and you take a photograph. Fashion photography, depending on the period and the magazine, was selling the idea of how you should look, how you should hold yourself. Now a good part of fashion magazines are about how do you keep in shape, how to stay young, how to survive. I am always amazed to hear young models say, “I use this to take off my makeup. I use this before I go to sleep. I use this while I’m sleeping. I wash my hair with this.” They know all these things but if they knew as much about politics or finance as they do about taking care of their bodies, that would be helpful to everybody. But I take off my hat to them because they have really got it down pat. They all have made a pact with the stuff that’s in the magazines and available to them. They made a choice and they have built a religion.

WWD: Is there a photograph or a piece of your work that your are particularly proud of?
I did a film on Muhammad Ali before he was champion. I was there when he became champion in 1964. I was happy to be able to document the development of a real American hero. He was somebody who everybody thought was a clown. He’s become for Americans and for people the world over the greatest sports hero of the 20th century. For many people, he’s also the most important American, because here’s a man who believed in his own convictions and sacrificed his title, money, the product that he could have acquired when he was exiled from boxing. There are very few Americans who refuse something on the basis of their convictions and I find that this is something very extraordinary. And I admire him for that.

WWD: What would you like people to think of when they see your work?
I would like people to think this man is worth a couple of million dollars more for what he has contributed and [for them] to give that to me [laughter.] You do things for yourself and you do things for other people and you hope that these things coincide.