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Matinee: 'The Many Lives of William Klein' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

12 July 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the forty-first in our series of Saturday matinees today: The Many Lives of William Klein.

This hour-long BBC documentary was produced in 2012 when Klein, a pioneer of street photography, was 84 and having a retrospective hung at the Tate Modern.

He grew up in New York City but made his home in Paris, remaining there to study art under Fernand Léger after serving in the Second World War. He thought it would be cool to pal around with Picasso and Giacometti.

Art, it had occurred to him living in an apartment near Harlem after his father lost everything on Black Friday, was a way out of poverty. And in Paris, he got a foot on that ladder when he photographed his wife moving some panels he had painted for an Italian architect and discovered a new abstract approach that caught the eye of Vogue's Alexander Liberman and launched his career.

Jeanne, his wife, was his life-long love. He never chased the models and they knew better than to go after a happily married man. "When I think back we had an incredible 60 years," he recalled once. "Everything I did, I did for her.”

But his models enjoyed working with him and he remained friends with them long after they had left the stage. He meets former supermodel Dorothy McGowan for a drink and you see the rapport they had is still there.

The film accompanies him before the Tate Modern show on a visit to New York and in Paris. He's an old man by then but you can see in his eyes the boy who looked out from his childhood photograph.

"Wide angle lens?" he asks in the cab. When that's confirmed, he adds, "I'm gonna look great."

His hair is white and wiry, long as a hippy's. But he hops in the barber's chair in Harlem after his cab driver gets a "shave" (too close to be called a haircut, he claims). And after he's done, he hangs around while a young boy gets a Mohawk. He gives his Leica to him, asking him to take his portrait and making a new friend.

His engagement with people is a contradiction, too. A street photographer who sat down and chatted with his subjects first, getting to know them. "You have a good eye," one of them tells him. "It takes more than that," he replies. They laugh. He gets their photograph.

It was a different style from the more remote street photography of Cartier-Bresson. Klein bought his Leica from Cartier-Bresson, proving perhaps that it isn't just the gear.

This man of contradictions took fashion photography into the street, into traffic, on the trolleys. The models loved it even if sometimes he forgot they were real (and might therefore be endangered by his compositions), as McGowan put it.

His fashion work, which always looked like stills from a movie, led to a send-off of a movie titled Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? that irreverently poked fun at fashion magazine editor Diana Vreeland. He followed that a few years later with Cassius the Great, a film about Muhammed Ali as he was just making a name for himself. He gained the Ali camp's confidence after sitting next to Malcolm X on a plane-ride and striking up a conversation with him. Just a few years later, he recut the film as Muhammed Ali, the Greatest.

As the film shows, he's always got his camera with him. As he gets around New York or scooters through the opening of his show at the Modern Tate, he pulls it out. It's still a Leica (but an R6, it appears, the name taped over). He's old fashioned, he explains in the barber shop, and still loves film.

Not only that, but he's got a good eye. And even more than that.

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