An Interview with William Klein

When writer Aaron Schuman first arrived at William Klein’s apartment, five stories above Paris’s rue de Médicis, he was ushered into Klein’s living room by his assistant. Klein, eighty-seven, had been up until four thirty in the morning the night before and was having a rest. After an hour or so of thumbing through this Aladdin’s cave of trophies and treasures, Schuman heard Klein stirring in the rooms at the back of the apartment. “By the tone of his voice, I could tell that he had just woken up, and was reluctant to join me,” Schuman said. “His assistant pleaded, ‘But he’s come all the way from England!’”

Finally, Klein entered the room, eyes wide and shining. This would be the first of two visits with Klein for this interview, which touches on the course of his remarkable career: his now-classic books on cities, including his hometown in Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956), Rome (1958–59), Tokyo (1964), Moscow (1964), and Paris (2003), all alive with Klein’s signature kineticism; his 1960s fashion work for Alexander Liberman, the celebrated art director at Vogue. This was the era in which Klein turned to moving images, having just made his first film, Broadway by Light, in 1958: he would become known for his fashion-world satire Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), starring model Dorothy McGowan, and Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1974), his cinema verité documentary on the fighter, among others. Recently, Klein has been revisiting some of his first experiments with still photography, abstractions from the early 1950s, some of which were exhibited at his London gallery last fall.

In this excerpted portion of their conversation, he speaks about his remarkable career, now in its seventh decade, about dreaming in black-and-white, and his celebrated fashion photography.

Atom Bomb Sky, New York, 1955

Aaron Schuman: Do you dream in black and white or color?

William Klein: Black and white, of course.

AS: What else do you dream about?

WK: I dream about a million things. It’s incredible. I had a dream recently, and I still don’t know whether it was a dream or not. It was about New York. Jean-Luc Godard was there, it was a Saturday, and there was an art opening. The people there were very friendly, and Godard was so, so nice, and also friendly. He was exhibiting his paintings, and people were saying, “Oh Jean-Luc, you have to come to my studio—I have some nice paintings to show you.” And he would say, “Of course!” which is so little like him. It was so precise, and everybody was the way that they should be. It was Godard being a nice New Yorker. He’s a prick, actually; I know him pretty well.

AS: So how did you go from making abstract black-and-white images in the darkroom to taking photographs on the streets of New York?

WK: Well, once I had the possibility of enlarging in a darkroom, I realized that the other photographs I’d been taking at the time were not as bad as all that. I was a primitive, and the photographs I was taking for myself were at the level of zero in terms of the evolution of photography. But once I had the opportunity to take the negatives and print them my way, I realized that I could use what I had learned—about graphic art, painting, and charcoal drawings, and so on—in my printing. So when I went back to New York, I had an idea of doing a book. I was twenty-four or twenty-five, something like that, and when you’re twenty-five you can do that sort of thing; if you decide to do it, you just do it. So I turned the bathroom in the hotel I was living in into a darkroom, and had access to a darkroom in my apartment. I washed the prints in the bathtub, and now these prints are considered “vintage prints”—they’re worth a lot of money.

Le Petit Magot, Armistice Day, Paris, 1968

AS: I was just looking through some of your old magazines, and saw that the first body of work you published in Vogue was selections from Black and Light.

WK: Yeah, I was participating in a show called Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris (1953), and Alexander Liberman—who was the art director of Vogue, and then became the art director for all of Conde Nast—left me a note asking me to come and see him. So I did, and he said, “How would you like to work for Vogue?” And I said, “Doing what?” and he said, “Well, we’ll see. You can be assistant art director or something.” We ended up deciding that I would do photographs, but I had no idea what kind of photographs I could do for Vogue. I looked at the fashion magazines, and I was really convinced that I couldn’t do anything like what the fashion photographers were doing; I mean, I thought their technique was beyond my reach. But when I looked more closely, I thought they weren’t so hot as all that, and the only photographers that impressed me were [Irving] Penn and [Richard] Avedon. The rest were just part of a system, and the more I looked at their photographs, the more I felt that there weren’t any really interesting ideas behind them.

Black Barn + White Lines, Island of Walcheren, 1952

AS: Before shooting any fashion photographs for the magazine, you also published a series called “Mondrian Real Life: Zeeland Farms” in Vogue in 1954.

WK: Yes, my wife inherited a house on the Dutch and Belgian frontier. One day we took our car and drove to the nearby island of Walcheren, and I saw these barns. They reminded me a little bit of the Dutch houses in Pennsylvania, and I learned that Mondrian had lived there during World War I. I thought that there must be some relationship between what he saw there and what he was doing later, so I photographed them. Then, when I met with Liberman again, he asked to see some of the stuff that I was doing, and when he saw those photographs he decided to publish a little portfolio of them in Vogue, which was unusual because it was a fashion magazine. But you know, fashion magazines at that time were the monthly dose of culture that women would get—theater, painting, exhibitions of all kinds—so those photographs fit in with the philosophy of Liberman.

AS: Did you enjoy working for such magazines at that time, when they had an important cultural influence as well as being about fashion?

WK: Why not? It was a way of making a living. The only things that were salable or publishable at the time were fashion photographs.

AS: Was that a concern of yours?

WK: It wasn’t a problem, just an observation I had to make. I thought that the other photographs that I was doing—the abstract photographs, the realistic photographs, the New York photographs, and so on—were more interesting. But nobody else was really interested in them.

Klein’s wife Janine with painted turning panels, Milan, 1952

AS: Were you frustrated by the fact that people were more interested in your fashion photography than in your art or street photography?

WK: I thought it was kind of bullshit photographing a dress, because I couldn’t care less. I was interested in photography and in photographic ideas. When I would do a session of fashion photographs my wife would ask, “What was the fashion like?” and I would say, “I have no idea.”

Read the complete interview in Aperture magazine. 

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