William Klein. Outsider/ Forastero.

In 1948, a young New Yorker so fresh from army service he was still in uniform, arrived in Paris. The Red Cross gave him a bicycle, and his reading gave him a route: he wanted to be an artist, so there was plenty to see. “I always dreamed of working in Paris, of going to the Coupole and slapping Picasso or Giacometti on the shoulder,” says William Klein of that long-ago 20 year-old. “Cycling to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts I saw this girl; I’d never seen anyone so beautiful,” he recalls. “So I asked her directions and then I asked what she was doing that evening.” He and Jeanne Florin married and stayed together until her death in 2005. “It was a great love affair,” he says. “When I think back we had an incredible 60 years. Everything I did, I did for her.” And he did plenty – as a painter and an anarchic film-maker, but principally as one of the most influential and prolific photographers there is.

Klein is as springy and flexible as a cat: even a recent knee operation has only slowed him physically, and he’s clearly as impatient with his reduced speed as he has always been with external attempts to restrict him.In the Fifties, inspired by Léger’s advice to forget galleries and get out into the world (“he said, ‘stop dreaming about getting in with collectors and museums, you have to work like artists in Renaissance Italy, who collaborated with architects and were part of the city’”), Klein went to Italy: “Things were really jumping there.”

An architect asked Klein to paint a series of space-dividing panels he had invented. “They were on rails, you could change the arrangement of panels something like 5,000 different ways. I photographed the abstract geometrical paintings I’d done on these panels and had somebody turn them when I photographed, so they blurred. And I realised that there might be something that could be done with blur in the darkroom. That was my first contact with photography.” He was lucky, as talented, energetic people generally are, at some point.

Alexander Liberman, American Vogue’s legendary art director, saw the photographs and invited him to work for the magazine. Doing what? asked Klein. “He said, ‘we’ll see, you can be assistant art director or work with me, whatever.’” Such suppleness: Klein, Liberman and the times were clearly made for each other.In the event, when he showed up in New York: “I saw these editors running around with harlequin glasses and hats and Liberman said ‘You wouldn’t last a day in this atmosphere, why don’t you do photography?’” And so the artist became a photographer, and started right at the top. How fortunate those fashionista editors were so off-putting, although I suspect Liberman may have been motivated more by fear of mass walkouts than worry about the tender sensibilities of his new recruit.

Klein at 26 was probably not so different from Klein at 82, because the world’s opinion of him has never been much of a consideration. That is evident in the debonair insouciance of the fashion photographs, and in the hipness and humour of his city books and their adjoining commentary. And in the man, seated in the corner of his beautiful living room with its sprawl of books, records and magazines, talking as the sun sets over the Luxembourg Gardens behind him.

Klein’s first book, Life is Good and Good For You in New York, was a sensation. It came out in 1955, in Paris – no American publisher would take it (and, in fact, they didn’t until 1995). Vogue, which had paid for its production, didn’t use any of it either. Klein was accused of making New York look like a slum; well, he replied, New York is a slum. But goodness, his slum was stylish. “Having lived in France for several years, I thought I had one eye that was European and one that was a street-smart New Yorker.” He photographed little boys with guns and men with moustaches. He showed a prescient awareness of the way advertising was altering the city in its own image (of one enormous advertisement, he wrote “there is something terrifying about this phrase written on the face of a city” – more so since Klein is clearly not a man who terrifies easily).

He says now that the book was about his family, which is not to say that it was affectionate. His parents were the children of Jewish Hungarian immigrants; they were not close. “My father was convinced that America was the greatest place in the world. I’m afraid I didn’t have the family I would have dreamed of.” No wonder he went to France and never came back. “My sister was brilliant, she was in the 25 top math students in the country. When she finished college, I said, ‘Spend a couple of months here in Europe, you’ll get another take on life’. She never came – married some schmuck who made clothes for fat women on Seventh Avenue.” Perhaps that made her happy? “Not really. What this guy wanted was to sell his outfit and play golf every day, which he did, and after a couple of months he couldn’t stand golf any more! He didn’t know what to do with himself, and finally he committed suicide: jumped out the window. I never had any relationship with him, either.”

Klein’s French is fluent, his son, also an artist, is both French and American, and his English has odd quirks – he pronounces fashion labels such as Prada and Armani with a French accent. But he has retained his American citizenship, and talks idly of getting dual nationality (after 63 years?). I ask if his friends were American or French, and he says he never really knew many Americans in Paris (“in a way I regret it, but I turned my back on America, and the idea of hearing American women, with their voices”) but he doesn’t actually name any French friends. Maybe there weren’t any. His wife once described him as “someone who never really wants to reveal who he is. All the important people, he was never polite to them, even those he liked. He hardly has any close friends. Maybe I’m the only one. He never played the game.” He still doesn’t. “She’s kind of a bitch,” he says offhandedly of Anna Wintour, current editor of American Vogue, but I hear no malice in his tone, and the comment follows his remark that English editors are taking over in New York the way Russian Jewish immigrants did when he was starting out.

There’s Wintour, Tina Brown, who gets points for bringing photography – and indeed, Klein himself – into the photographer’s beloved New Yorker magazine, and Glenda Bailey of Harper’s Bazaar, who has recently lured him back to fashion to take pictures of Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, John Galliano and others, each with their circle of acolytes. For years, Klein experimented, taking models out on the streets, playing aesthetically and technically with the toys that a rich magazine can offer its stars. In between, he made books – on Rome (where the men assumed the models were hookers, and tried to pick them up), on Moscow, Tokyo and finally, eventually, on Paris. And he dipped into film, with his usual razor timing: Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, his documentary on the then-unknown boxer, covered the 1964 fight that made him world champion, as well as his later rematch with Sonny Liston. “There was a lot of controversy [over that second fight]: did Liston lie down or was it really a punch? And it was funny, the day before the fight, Ali said, ‘I’ve been working with karate experts, I’m going to hit him here, with a corkscrew punch, and that’ll be the end.’ And they analysed the film, because people thought that Liston was either paid to lie down or wasn’t willing to be humiliated. And it was true, he really did hit him here, and that was the end.”

Ali, he remembers, “made this pretence of not knowing names of journalists, like white people used to do with blacks then”. He knew Klein was from Europe but he knew only one country from that part of the world. So he called the photographer “England”. Klein’s cinematic riff on the neon lights of his birth town, Broadway by Light, was effusively admired by Orson Welles and won him a spot as Louis Malle’s co-director on Zazie dans le Métro, although Klein walked out on the project when shooting began. He assisted Fellini on Nights of Cabiria and pulled off a brilliant documentary about Little Richard, despite the singer himself withdrawing his co-operation early on. And, because he hated the fashion world, except for the girls, Klein’s first feature film was a satire on that industry. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? released in 1966, is still acerbic entertainment, as acidly refreshing as home-made lemonade, although you’ll probably have to take my word for it, because it’s not available in this country. All Klein’s films are difficult to get hold of here, and his books aren’t easy either.

Errata Editions has brought out a version of New York and Thames & Hudson has reissued Rome, but for a legend in his own lifetime, Klein is damned elusive. There is talk of a Tate Modern retrospective next year, which would help, and certainly Simon Baker, Tate’s photography curator, is a great admirer. “He’s a much more complex and sophisticated artist than most,” Baker says. “And he’s very tough – the pictures are tough to look at and must have been tough to make.” Even the fashion pictures, he notes, are challenging. Klein succeeded quickly, although there was a brief rough patch when his aristocratic Flemish wife was obliged to model – not an occupation she ever enjoyed. (It is very odd that two people so openly dismissive of fashion have had such a lot to do with it.) Klein, who says that the secret of being happily married for six decades is simply to choose the right person, will doubtless miss Jeanne for the rest of his life, but he is not a man to pine. He mentions a girlfriend – a Portuguese film star, with whom he is making a new film – and he is putting together a new book, Anywhere. He has taken to digital with enthusiasm, and when I meet him, has just photographed Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine, the new, supposedly acceptable face of the racist Front National, for a Left-wing magazine. The head of the FN photographed by a Jew?

“Well, she’s like her father but, she’s a blonde, not bad looking. I went to their little building outside Paris and it looked good – the buildings made a very sharp angle, and I put her in the middle with the FN sign above her head and said: ‘OK – you show me that this is chez moi’, so she went through a whole lot of poses; she thought that saying to the camera ‘this is chez moi’ was cool. It’s very funny because these people are very savvy and suspicious but you tell her to do something like that and she’ll do it: she doesn’t realise that she’s ridiculous.” For all his jagged edges, Klein clearly knows how to pick his fights. As he puts it, as succinct as one of his photographs: “Listen, if you spend your time fighting everybody who f—- you over, you won’t have time to do anything else.”

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Cuando en 1956 se publicó en Francia el libro de fotografías de William Klein sobre Nueva York, la ciudad en la que había nacido, ya nada fue igual. El contenido y la forma de mostrarlo conmovieron la conciencia de los autosatisfechos. Aquel joven de 28 años que había decidido trasladarse a París ocho años antes para desarrollar su inicial vocación por las artes plásticas al lado de Fernand Léger, el mismo que había exhibido sus pinturas en Milán y experimentado con la escultura cinética y la fotografía, aceptó en 1954 la propuesta de Alexander Liberman, director de arte de Vogue, para que realizara un reportaje de moda. Fue el reencuentro con su ciudad y el definitivo descubrimiento de las posibilidades creativas de la cámara fotográfica.

“Me había marchado siendo niño y volvía ya cumplidos los 20, con una esposa francesa, nuevas referencias y hábitos, y en los inicios de una carrera como pintor”, recordaba el artista años después. “De modo que ahí estaba, en un barco, viendo Manhattan emerger entre la niebla, con su perfil de postal, y, luego, mi padre intentando bromear con unos agentes de aduana aburridos, y, fuera, un enjambre de taxis amarillos y un viejo montón de cromos de golfistas, de jugadores de béisbol y de imágenes de la pequeña Lulú asomando por doquier. Era el principio de una película que tenía muy vista (…). De pronto, lugares y sonidos en los que nunca antes había reparado, que había olvidado o que no sabía que existiesen, me emocionaban sobremanera. Me sentía en trance y pensaba que podía hacer algo con todo aquello. Tenía una cámara, aunque apenas sabía cómo usarla”.

La ignorancia de Klein fue una enorme suerte para la fotografía. En la mitad de los años cincuenta, la fotografía de autor imperante, la intocable Academia establecida y respetada, era la que se distanciaba en todo lo posible de la amateur. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston e incluso el emergente Cartier-Bresson valoraban por encima de todo conceptos como “objetividad”, “transparencia”, “técnica”, “positivados de alta calidad”, “composición”, etcétera. Frente a ellos surgieron nombres como los de William Klein, Robert Frank o William Eggleston, que comienzan a incorporar a sus obras escenas caóticas con numerosos elementos urbanos, colores poco reales, una granulación deliberadamente excesiva, planos fuera de foco…, todo lo que hasta entonces era rechazado por los maestros y profesionales. “No tenía ni formación ni complejos”, explicó Klein. “Por necesidad y elección, decidí que todo valía. Empleé una técnica carente de tabúes: imágenes borrosas, muy contrastadas, encuadres torcidos, accidentes, cualquier cosa”.

Un joven en trance, emocionado. Una ciudad que era la misma de siempre pero que le revelaba sonidos y lugares que no había sabido ver o que el paso del tiempo le permitía observarla con más sabiduría, y un gran deseo de retratarlo todo desde su inexperiencia. El empujón definitivo llegó de la mano del MoMA, un museo ejemplar en el estímulo de las nuevas tendencias creativas. La subversión de lo establecido no habría sido la misma sin el apoyo de John Szarkowski, su conservador de fotografía. Klein llevaba ya un año en Nueva York trabajando profesionalmente para Vogue y personalmente en la elaboración de un diario que dejara constancia de sus impresiones fotográficas. “Era un etnógrafo fingido en busca del más directo de los documentos directos, la instantánea más cruda, el punto cero fotográfico. Pretendía retratar a los orgullosos neoyorquinos con el mismo espíritu con el que una expedición de museo documentaría la vida de los kikuyus”. El gran fotógrafo Edward Steichen organizó entonces, 1955, la exposición “The family of man” en el alabado MoMA, para la que recopiló y seleccionó unos dos millones de fotografías en el mundo entero y en las que se reflejaban todos los componentes de la vida humana, desde el nacimiento hasta la muerte. Una muestra colectiva que se convertiría en una referencia inexcusable de la fotografía contemporánea.

El asedio a lo establecido encontraba los apoyos suficientes. Si instituciones de renombre como el MOMA promovían las alternativas de la vanguardia, empresas privadas como Vogue renovaban sus conceptos tradicionales sobre los reportajes de moda. Su director de arte, Alexander Liberman, explicaba así la incorporación de William Klein a la revista: “En la fotografía de moda de los años cincuenta, nunca antes había pasado algo como Klein. Él fue de un extremo a otro, haciéndose así con una combinación de enorme ego y valentía. Fue pionero en la telefoto y en las lentes de gran angular, dándonos una nueva perspectiva”. Robert Delpire, por su parte, se explayaba aún más en su fervor por el fotógrafo: “Admiro su franqueza, su ironía afilada como la hoja de una espada. Se burla de la estupidez y la arrogancia, utilizando su mirada para desnudar los valores falsos, el lujo ilusorio y los engaños. Nadie sabe representar el ridículo del espectáculo del mundo tan bien como él. Pero Klein aún es más. Pinta, edita sus libros, fotografía, realiza cine, cortos y largos. Se podría pensar que se dispersa demasiado, pero nada más lejos de la verdad. Estoy sorprendido de cómo, con el tiempo, su trabajo es más coherente y uniforme, por su lucidez, por su facilidad para la innovación. Nada se le escapa cuando posa su mirada en algo. Escenas callejeras, anuncios políticos, el mundo del deporte, e incluso el mundo de la moda, que le dio la oportunidad para conseguir introducirse en uno de los últimos ambientes barrocos del milenio. William Klein es, sin duda, un observador de su tiempo, un hombre sin límites ni fronteras”, un elogio que hay que valorar en toda su significación aportando un dato sobre Delpire: en 1958 publicó el libro The americans, de Robert Frank, con prólogo de Jack Kerouac, un escritor joven que un año antes, en 1957, había publicado su novela On the road.

Eran lo que se vino en llamar “los fabulosos cincuenta”, una década en la que Estados Unidos, como apunta el propio Klein, “estaba inventando la cultura de posguerra, colonizando el planeta”, años de ebullición, rebeldía y cambios importantes en los hábitos ciudadanos. El propio fotógrafo señala algunas de las características de la década, los hechos más destacables: “La caza de brujas al estilo soviético de McCarthy y los golpes de Estado de la CIA en Irán y Guatemala, mientras los hermanos McDonald abrían un chiringuito de hamburguesas en San Bernardino, los Beatnick estaban en la carretera, on the road; Elvis grababa sus primeros discos, el instituto de Little Rock abolía la segregación, los Levittown despuntaban, al igual que Marilyn, Brando, la bomba H, la píldora, los rebeldes sin causa, los centros comerciales, las guitarras eléctricas, la carrera espacial, Blackboard Jungles, el rock and roll blanco y, por encima de todo, en monstruosas cajas de madera, la televisión. Sin duda, era el mejor y el peor de los tiempos a la vez”.

Klein había publicado en París su libro sobre Nueva York en 1956 porque ninguno de los editores norteamericanos con los que se había entrevistado lo había aceptado. “Bah, esto no es fotografía”, recuerda que le decían. “Esto es una mierda. No es Nueva York, hay demasiados negros, resulta demasiado marginal, parece uno de esos barrios bajos”. Si a ello se le añade el que Klein rompe también con las normas al uso de la maquetación y edición de los libros de fotografía, se comprenderá la desconfianza del mundo editorial hacia su trabajo, sobre todo si quienes desconfían no son capaces de apreciar los cambios sociales y culturales que se vivían. “Para mí”, añade Klein, “el diseño, el grafismo y la composición eran casi tan importantes como las fotografías en sí. Así que hice lo que pude por crear un nuevo objeto visual. Páginas dobles con 20 imágenes yuxtapuestas a modo de tira de cómic, páginas consecutivas que contrastaban entre sí, dobles páginas con tonos diluidos, parodias de catálogos y un toque dadá”.

Dos años después, en 1958, Klein presentaba un nuevo libro sobre otra ciudad, Roma, con un denominador común: la agresividad. “Hice, y con plena conciencia, todo lo contrario de lo que se hacía. Pensaba que el desencuadre, el azar, el aprovechar lo accidental, una relación diferente con la cámara permitirían liberar la imagen fotográfica. Hay cosas que sólo una cámara fotográfica puede hacer… La cámara está llena de posibilidades que no se explotan. Pero la fotografía consiste precisamente en eso. La cámara puede sorprendernos. Sólo tenemos que ayudarla”. Era una nueva muestra de lo que él llamaba “mis fotos serias” que completaría con los libros dedicados a Moscú y Tokio, los cuatro realizados entre 1956 y 1964. Desde hacía un tiempo, Klein había descubierto las posibilidades expresivas del cine, y a él se dedicó en cuerpo y alma durante las dos décadas siguientes, aunque retomó la fotografía en los años ochenta, en los que publica su particular homenaje a la que considera su segunda cuna: París.

Una nueva demostración del talento de William Klein es la de que cuando decide abandonar, al menos temporalmente, la fotografía para explorar el cine, sus resultados son igualmente brillantes y, en ocasiones, de una gran influencia en las generaciones de cineastas jóvenes. Broadway by light, Mister Freedom, ¿Quién eres tú, Polly Magoo?, Eldridge Cleaver, black panther, The little Richard story, Mohammed Alí, the Greatest, Babilée 91, Ralentis o El Mesías, su último filme, que presentará personalmente en Madrid, son algunos de los largometrajes o mediometrajes que realizó para el cine y la televisión y en los que dejó constancia de su sensibilidad, de su conexión con los tiempos que le tocó vivir y de sus ansias permanentes de renovar lo establecido. Personajes como Mohammed Alí, Little Richard o apuestas estéticas como la de Polly Magoo le convierten en un personaje esencial de “la década prodigiosa”, en parte importante de la cultura pop.

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