Hold That Pose

This retrospective exhibition celebrates the captivating vision of William Klein
By Bailey Slater | Art | 7 June 2022

Bikini, Moskva (River), Moscow, 1959. © William Klein, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

An exhibition of nearly 300 works from renowned artist William Klein has just launched at International Center of Photography in New York City.

A major retrospective of sorts, YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948–2013 dives headfirst into Klein’s immeasurable contributions to art with photographs, paintings and films all taken throughout his illustrious six-decade career. “For a long time, Klein was known as either a fashion photographer or a street photographer or a filmmaker, as different audiences knew and valued different aspects of his work,” says curator David Campany, whose fascination with Klein lies in the study of culture-at-large. “Only in recent years has the scope of his achievements begun to be recognized.” 

Moves and Pepsi, Harlem, New York, 1955. © William Klein, Courtesy Howard Greenberg

Klein started off his career as a painter, trading in NYC for Fernand Léger’s studio in Paris at the end of the 1940s. Despite Léger’s continued encouragement to pursue forms of new media like photography and film, Klein stuck with the canvas, and in 1952, his abstract works caught the eye of an architect who enlisted Klein to adorn a series of apartment room dividers. The experiment took Klein to the dark room, where he produced photograms in their literal thousands, altering each one slightly with circular, diamond and square-shaped cutouts, sometimes moving them around his prints as he eagerly toyed with the effects of glare and exposure.

The project evidently consolidated what path his career would take next, and after eight years in Paris, Klein returned to New York at the behest of American Vogue art director, Alex Liberman. Here, he took to street photography, cruising around Harlem and its surrounding areas as he interacted with various subjects. Klein immersed himself into their lives as a participant, not a spectator, creating work that jostles with all the personalities he met whilst on foot.

Such expressive imagery would eventually culminate in his debut, self-published photography book, Life is Good and Good for You in New York – Trance Witness Revels, which despite being neglected in The States after its 1956 release, was an instant hit overseas. Suffice it to say, this would set the precedent for a visual style that studied and celebrated the vibrancy of life in the 20th century, cementing itself as a classic in the years that followed.

Marc Jacobs and Klein, Paris, 2005. © William Klein, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Klein was so on a roll that, amongst the chaos of all his artistic endeavours, his many commissions at Vogue – that is American, British and French – were simply referred to as his ‘day job’. He said once of his role as a prolific fashion photographer: “I accepted the obligation of showing the clothes. Sharp, all the buttons, pleats and whatever. As long as I did that, I found I could do pretty much what I wanted with the rest – backgrounds, attitudes, situations… Whatever, I guess the editors didn’t care as long as the reader didn’t flip the page too fast.”

Over the years the photographer captured many a fashion great, pivoting from still-life work to assignments with world-famous models that honed his eye for chaos. Capturing the frenzy of mid-00s fashion with Pharrell, Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld, or bringing Times Square to a sixties photo studio in Dorothy and Formfit, Paris (1961). Klein’s images adapted with ease as each decade passed, introducing new colours and compositions into the fold as he set about defining new eras of design.

William Klein, Candy Store, Amsterdam Avenue, New York, 1955. © William Klein

It’s unbelievable to think, then, that Klein also had time to produce a series of films and documentaries – 27 in total. Some, like Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), drew on his first-hand experience in the upper echelons of the art and photography world, acting as an exposé-cum-satirical-social-commentary on the vapid and insecure business of high fashion. Others drew awareness to issues of social injustice, like Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) and The Pan African Festival of Algiers (1969), the latter celebrating post-imperial independence in Algeria, the former offering profound political insight into the mind of an American civil rights leader.

What YES aims to explore, then, is the many facets of the man behind the camera. Klein was intuitive, and a maverick in documenting all that surrounded him, innovating culture with each practice he lent his heart to. How Campany and co. condensed six decades into this exhibition is a mystery to us, but the show, something of a homecoming for the born-and-bread New Yorker, remains a must-see for all art lovers.

YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948–2013 is currently on show until 12th September, 2022. Tickets are available here.

Dorothy and Formfit, Paris, 1961.

Black Venus West Indian Day Parade, Brooklyn, New York, 2013. © William Klein, Courtesy
Howard Greenberg Gallery


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