In his own fashion: William Klein didn't give a hoot for hemlines and his pictures prove it. Jane Richards takes a snapshot of the subversive photographer

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The Independent Culture
A black-and-white close-up photograph has a pair of wrestlers fighting on the grass. They loom large to the right of the photo; to the left is the audience, two fellow Italians cheering them on. The full impact of their aggression forces you into the photograph. Then you see the model. She's bang in the centre of the image but she's looking straight at the camera, indifferent to the action surrounding her, caught up in her own aura.

The photograph, by William Klein, is a brilliant piece of satire and a perfect example of his approach to fashion photography. Photography he took seriously, but he didn't give a hoot for fashion. An exhibition of Klein's fashion photographs at the Hamilton Gallery is a welcome survey of his work for Vogue magazine during the Fifties and Sixties. Also included are the results of his recent return to the fashion world - fast-moving pictures taken behind the scenes at fashion shows.

The early photographs are by far the best. While we expect to see this kind of brash, witty, in-your-face photography today, it was considered shocking in 1954 when art director Alexander Liberman first introduced Klein to the unsuspecting Vogue readership. The fashion shoot up until then had been a formal affair, strictly studio- based with the accent on unqualified elegance. But Liberman was looking for something different; he had become aware of the impact a talented new photographer called Richard Avedon was making on Harper's Bazaar and determined to find a rival.

William Klein was, in 1954, an American living in Paris, struggling as an abstract painter / photographer. Liberman had been impressed by his abstract photographs and suggested he try his hand at fashion photography as a means of subsidising his more serious artistic pursuits. Klein weighed up his lack of interest in the fashion industry against the chance of unlimited film, artistic freedom and as wide an audience as he could hope to get. Then he pulled out all the stops.

The results exuded an air of fun and frivolity which blew away the cobwebs in the fashion industry. And the fun that Klein was having shines through. In one shoot in Rome, Klein positioned himself on the Spanish steps above the Piazza di Spagna, with a telephoto lens. He wanted first to capture a lot of activity on a busy street without drawing attention to himself, and secondly to flatten the perspective so that the figures would look as though they had been pasted onto a backdrop. He got two models to walk back and forth across a pedestrian crossing, doing double-takes as they passed each other to reflect the fact that they were wearing similar dresses with stripey detail.

According to a stylist working for Klein on the shoot, the scenario eventually caused havoc when people started to stop and stare and traffic came to a virtual stand-still. But Klein kept shooting, intent on achieving the appearance of a throw-away moment. The idea of contrasting the dress stripes with the pedestrian crossing was a smart one - but could have looked contrived. The activity surrounding the models as they crossed the street adds reality to the situation.

'Every picture was an experiment,' said Klein, and the last thing on his mind was the model's dress. What did he care if he cropped the picture too high to allow a glimpse of the elevated hemline on a new collection? His mind was on the next piece of trickery - anything to create a stir and subvert the genre - 'the phonier the better'. Masks and waxwork figures loom large - an effective satire on the stoney facial expressions of the models. In other shots, Klein has his models hold up long mirrors in busy streets to reflect each other and create a sense of confusion. Elsewhere, he photographs them against massive prints of Parisian streets and creates wonderful pieces of trompe l'oeil as they appear to cling on to the sides of buildings.

Less successful are the later works - irreverent colour pictures taken back stage at the fashion shows. Klein uses a slow shutter-speed to create a blurred record of the frantic activity around him. He's waiting for something to happen - but without the dress rehearsal it's just not the same.

The Hamilton Gallery, London W1 (071-499 9493); to 12 March. 'William Klein: In and Out of Fashion' is out on Thurs (Jonathan Cape, pounds 50)

(Photograph omitted)