Life and Blur: William Klein at Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam (2013/2014)
The ‘Big Apple’, despite its reputation in Europe, is not the great and flawless city that its nickname might suggest. At William Klein’s retrospective at Foam in Amsterdam, the blurred image of two children dancing in Brooklyn, Danse à Brooklyn (1955), provides a fitting parody of the unattainable Broadway that sparkles in magazines. Visitors are greeted in the first room by some black-and-white clichés of New York hailing from the 1950s. Street photography represents a particular encounter between visual art and real life and generates a fundamental contradiction between movement and stasis, reality and artifact. What photography does, indeed, is to condense the dynamic of living into an image, a static fragment of form. Klein’s pictures are artistic crystallizations of life’s becoming and photography is the medium through which this interpenetration is made possible.
Klein represents a world icon for the contemporary photography scene. Since the 1990s the artist has worked on Contacts, a series that consists of manipulated and enlarged photographs derived from the contact sheets he produced over the years. At the end of the exhibition, these photographs—in large format and colorized—represent an interesting but perhaps overly self-referential piece of work that betrays the artist’s awareness of his artistic and social status. Some of Klein’s most famous clichés have been reprinted, large-scale, revamped and over-painted. His artistic background as abstract painter originates from his apprenticeship in Paris with Fernand Léger. The artist’s propensity for abstraction persists throughout his career and is clearly demonstrated by some of his photographs of billboards and urban illuminations. Broadway by Light (1958), Klein’s first film, which is presented at the beginning of the exhibition, bears witness to this particular abstract and typographical aesthetic. Klein was strongly drawn to colored signs and lights. It was precisely this attraction that guided him during his Milanese experience, as affirmed by the series of black-and-white abstract paintings commissioned by the Italian architect Angelo Mangiarotti in 1952—to be used as pivoting room dividers in modern apartments—as well as by the photographic services that Klein realized throughout the 1960s for the architecture magazine Domus, under the direction of Gio Ponti.
Born in 1928 in New York City, William Klein graduated early from high school and enrolled at the City College of New York at the age of fourteen. After joining the army, he was stationed in Germany and later in France, where he lives to this day. This young Jewish New Yorker, possessing a strong passion for the MoMA, arrived in Paris on 13 July 1949 and began his training as a painter at the Sorbonne. Inspired by artists such as László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes, he began to experiment with juxtaposing abstract painting and photography. This was later to become his main form of expression. Six years of French life enabled him to observe his hometown as an ethnographer when returning for a visit to New York in 1954. The result of this brief trip is a kind of photographic diary, which portrays the city from a highly personal perspective. Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956), the photo book that resulted from this experience, was strongly criticized precisely for this blurred and unconventional aesthetic. Nevertheless, it was awarded the Prix Nadar in 1957, thereby fulfilling Klein’s career and ultimately signaling his consecration. From this moment until 1964, he began travelling around the world to record life’s multiplicity. These trips gave rise to three other photobooks: Rome (1960), Moscow (1964) and Tokyo (1964). The exhibition at Foam presents Klein’s travels, chronologically displayed through his very personal, blurred black-and-white memories.
Contradicting Henri Cartier-Bresson’s narrative of the invisible witness, Klein’s innovative approach is far less modest. It shows us unequivocally that it is his presence in itself that shapes the image. Although he never physically appears in the photo, frequently there is someone staring at the camera, as if the protagonists were talking with the photographer just prior to the click of the shutter. Somehow, the artist is always present via this dialogue. Gun 1 (1955) is the most famous example of this kind of dynamic: the challenging gaze of the child holding the firearm reveals his relationship to the photographer, and more generally, through this playful attack, every viewer is invited to take part in their ‘game’. Klein’s images do not inform us about the identity and subjectivity of people, but reveal something about the process of their realization, based upon the interrelationship of the subject and photographer. This is expressed most strongly in pictures such as Black Kid + Harmonica (1955), Office Girls + Snowman (1955), as well as a Little Girl + Lenin (1959), featuring the portrait of a little girl standing in front of a statue of Lenin in Moscow, as if posing before a family member. Not every photograph is permeated with the same degree of humanity. However, all appear as ‘spaces in between’: hence, the image’s final result contains its own process of creation.
Fashion arrives on the crossroads between real life and art.
The artistic skills of Klein work to combine reality and fiction, street photography and artifact settings. One example is the photograph entitled Antonia Simone Barbershop, New York (1961) for Vogue magazine, for which he asked a random guy working in a bar to take a seat in the chair. Commissioned by Vogue’s art director Alexander Liberman from 1955 to 1965, the artist had the freedom to play with the fashion world from the inside. There is something grotesque and ironic in these images, to which Foam has dedicated an entire floor. Klein’s veiled mockery is created because he operates in that world—being both an insider and an outsider at the same time. Twisting stereotypical canons and toying with subversions through the use of backstage imagery, he proceeded in the direction of a real deconstruction of this iconic system. The backstage clichés Katsumo (1992), Gaultier (1986), Saint Laurent (1992), and Issey Miyake (1987), which are displayed at the beginning of this section, describe the processes that lie behind the creation of fashion’s flawlessness, describing the ‘real’ process of making. The preparation of a fashion show is shown in Klein’s satirical movie Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1965), which is presented at the end of the exhibition, along with the rest of his cinematographic production. Klein’s fashion photographs are the product of a game: the artist plays in the space between fiction and reality, using stereotypes to deemphasise its fictive and glossy appearance. Roberto Cappuci’s fashion campaign in Piazza di Spagna in Rome is a clear example of this dynamic. Two beautiful top models are walking into a famous square of Rome; they appear totally out of context, as if stolen from the cover of a fashion magazine. It is precisely this clash between reality and fictional elements that creates such an original synthesis. Klein ‘transforms’ common people into actors on a photographic set, removing the zebra crossing from the banality of daily life and upgrading it into optic art. The clash between urban elements and elegant top models, along with the frequent use of mirrors, as in Evelyn, Isabella, Nena + Mirrors (1962) or Sandra + Mirror on Broadway (1962), is meant to emphasize the ‘fictive reality’ of fashion in order to create a surrealistic atmosphere that enables the artist to complete his ironic mockery. Irony permits the author to create this spatial limbo between reality and fiction, which is also used in the movies Mr Freedom (1967-68) and The Model Couple (1977), where the artist deals with power relations. Such irony has endured right up to the present day as well as his most recent work, with the photographs Hungry Aristocrats, taken at the 2001 Prix de Diane, and Golden Tits, taken at the Gay Pride in Paris in 2000, revealing that he still maintains his piercing satire.
With regards to Klein’s recent production, Foam presents ten of his latest photographs featuring Brooklyn, which represent a renewed, second view of his hometown, after the originals from the 1950s. While the blurred and unconventional gaze of the artist is still the same, when one compares the two photo series, it becomes clear that Klein’s approach and choices are deeply influenced by the visual context. Mr. Coney Island, Brooklyn (2013) demonstrates how time has changed the city. Even if some aspects, such as urban billboards, remain attractive subjects for the artist, his decision to abandon the black-and-white aesthetic greatly changes the results, which are far removed from that classical and poetic scenography of the 1960s: the new images waver between the grotesque and pop-art.
On the walls of Foam, the photographs appear to be arranged randomly, an approach that is encountered throughout the exhibition, in rejection of chronological or thematic canons of exhibition. The light setting in the rooms is a display in itself, creating a kind of visual puzzle, thereby reducing the symbolic distance between images and visitors. These choices allow the creation of a comfortable space in which to walk and interact with the photographs, and enabling one’s gaze to wander at will. This ‘cinematic posters shop’ kind of setting seems to be created without the intention to distract; instead, it seems to be connected with Klein’s unconventional approach to photography. The arrangement of the images resonates strongly with the ambivalent and ironic view of the artist, as well as the book layouts, in which he made extensive use of wide-angle and telephoto lenses, natural lighting and motion blur, such as Life is Good and Good for You in New York. And yet, the casual dispersion of pictures on the walls of Foam ends up disorienting the spectator’s gaze. With the look of a Tetris game, this unusual setup fails to define the aura of the individual artworks. In an era of figurative overproduction, this lack of spatial isolation can be quite risky. The complete absence of space between the prints blunts their visual strength and uniqueness. The choice for leaving out descriptions below individual pieces is also debatable. Titles are mentioned in uncomfortable, small maps to the left of the partitions. While the visitor is struggling to identify the correct work/title combination, the interesting dialogue that could potentially arise between images and words is inevitably lost. Nonetheless, visiting a retrospective like this is enriching, because it gives the visitor a sense of getting to know the artist in person via his oeuvre. This feeling can also be conjured up by reading the issue of the Foam Magazine #37, which has been devoted solely to William Klein to mark the occasion of this exhibition. Apart from portfolios featuring several of his photo series, it also includes an interview conducted by David Campany, in which the photographer talks about his life and work.
Valentina Polinori graduated in Art History at the University of La Sapienza in Rome. She obtained her BA and MA in Contemporary Art History at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She spent a semester at the Gender Studies Department of Utrecht University. ↑