William Klein interview: The comeback kid - at 86

William Klein is starting all over again. The photographer who revolutionised our way of looking at the city 60 years ago with his iconoclastic photo books on New York, his home town, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo, is now 86 and mostly stuck in a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop him jumping at Sony Corporation’s offer to pick up their latest digital camera and start on a new series of city books. The first, on Brooklyn, is on show at London’s Somerset House until 18 May.

"I wanted to do a city,” he told The Independent on Sunday at the show’s launch. “Where would you go? I was toying with the idea of Las Vegas or Hollywood or some other place… I was intrigued by the idea that Brooklyn was becoming a place that everybody in New York between the ages of 20 and 40 wanted to live in for many reasons.

“I grew up in Manhattan, but curiously enough every time I asked a girl where she was from she said Brooklyn! Which meant long subway rides and long walks and also a feeling of superiority because Manhattan was the Big Apple and everything that was happening was in Manhattan. All the time I was growing up, Brooklyn was like the sticks, you looked down on it, it was provincial and nothing was really coming out of it. But some things did come out of Brooklyn: Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Mike Tyson, Murder Incorporated…”

Klein shot the pictures in his first book, Life is Good and Good for You in New York, in 1955. The book was published in Paris, his adoptive home, and it would be 40 years before it appeared in the US. Americans criticised his work for making the city look like a slum. He replied, New York is a slum. But what was really indigestible was his totally new way of shooting.

An aspiring abstract painter and sculptor who studied at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill after demobilisation from the US army after World War Two, he took up the camera knowing little and caring less about how it worked. His black and white pictures of the city’s street life were grainy, strongly contrasted, often blurred, and captured the raucous, jazzy, freeform quality of post-war city life like no-one else’s. In one of them, a ferociously scowling young boy thrusts his toy gun at the lens. A bevy of seriously overweight young women pose in a public bath. Blurred black kids play in a city wasteland. At the time his work appeared flawed, incompetent, slap-dash. But photography would never be the same again.    

So what induced him to go back over the same ground, 60 years on?

“Sony offered me a contract to play around with their material and we worked out a contract where I would do five projects over the next five years. Each city would be something that I would be responsible for, it would be my idea – what’s to complain about?”

It’s not the first time he has worked with a digital camera. He is ambivalent about the experience.

“I found it very easy, extraordinary. The digital camera takes photographs in practically no light: it will dig out the least bit of light available.” An example is the book’s opening spread, which captures the black hulk of Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, a pale sun glinting through the clouds. “I was amazed to see the results of photographs that I wouldn’t take ordinarily. That’s the advantage of digital photography

“But it’s true that it’s too easy compared to film. I regulate the camera on automatic, and the camera just works out all the problems. The disadvantage is it gives you an image without accidents. When you use film you use accidents, but there aren’t any accidents with digital photography. I don’t mind that it’s easy. But I do mind that there is a sort of consensus with the camera and the subject and the light and you look at something and you photograph it and you get what you see.”

'Mister Steeplechase', 2013 © William Klein. The image is part of an exclusive Sony commission for Sony's Global Imaging Ambassadors programme, and can be seen at Somerset House until 18 May as part of the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition

Despite his age and the wheelchair, Klein went at Brooklyn with the same freewheeling approach as in his early years. It’s all based on random encounters and following where they lead. Interviewing him is strange because he keeps turning the encounter on its head and asking me the questions: what was I doing in Tokyo when I first discovered his work, have I done much photography, what sports do I like, what’s interesting about cricket? It’s curious to be sitting at the opening of a William Klein show with the great man himself, winner of the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal in 1999, and answering questions about cricket. But this must be the way he gets his best shots.

In Brooklyn, he writes in the new book, “My assistant and I were watching a mediocre minor league [baseball] game…A man came over to join us. He was a Czech Rabin” – an ultra-orthodox Jew – “a baseball and photography fan…He asked us whether we wanted to see a Hasidic prayer and study session. It was only a block away. We accepted.” The end result is a series showing men in large black hats embracing, laughing, holding hands, dancing, all shot from wheelchair height. Rarely has that closed sect admitted an outside observer so artlessly.  

Laconic, easy-going, in his early years Klein’s unique eye brought him the admiration of Orson Welles and Louis Malle and collaborations with Federico Fellini in Rome and Vogue’s legendary art director Alexander Liberman, with whom he enjoyed a long, improbable run as a fashion photographer.  No-one overawes Klein: of the legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour he says, “She’s kind of a bitch.” Recently he has shot the right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen – “She’s a blonde, not bad looking” – and got into hot water with approving remarks about the outrageous French comedian Dieudonné. 

The contract with Sony will keep him in work until he’s 91. What other cities does he fancy shooting. “Kiev!” he suggests. “The Maidan! That champion boxer Klitschko…”

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