Try to put him in a box and he’ll find his way out. Still working at nearly 85 years old, William Klein has gone rogue in at least four different fields: abstract painting, photography, filmmaking and commercial copy writing.
Klein now lives in Paris but I caught up with him in New York City — the place where he was born, but no longer has much affinity for. He’s just here to promote a new book, William Klein ABC.
When I ask him what he thinks about the city, he says:
“One thing that annoys me is the talk. I went into Starbucks, and I wanted tea — and there was a cookie. ‘Starbuck’s outrageous oatmeal cookie.’ What do you mean outrageous? Everybody says, ‘Have a nice day.’ There’s a lot of bull- – – – in the talk.”
“People don’t do that in Paris?” I ask.
“They don’t do that,” he replies. “They’re much cooler.”
As a young man, after being in the military, Klein got a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris and started doing abstract painting. He was influenced by the artist Fernand Leger.
“He didn’t talk arty-farty,” says Klein. “He would say, ‘That is cool, that is strong, keep it up.’ And that’s it. No fancy-schmancy art talk.” Leger told him: “Get out of the galleries. Look at buildings; go out onto the street.”
It was advice that served Klein well — not only in painting but also in photography and film.
After some of his work was shown in Paris, he was approached by an editor of Vogue magazine, who invited him to New York as an assistant art director. But when Klein got there, he says, “I saw all these women with hats and harlequin glasses walking around with a shoe or a piece of cloth or something, and [the editor] said, ‘You wouldn’t last one day in this place. Take photographs.’ “
And that’s what he did. Vogue paid for cameras and equipment. And the result was an extraordinary book of photographs that was published in Europe — but was considered too edgy for the U.S.
“The photographs I took at the time,” says Klein, “were the least publishable photographs anybody was taking. I showed the photographs to a couple of editors I knew. They said, ‘You make New York look like a slum.’ I said, ‘What do you know about New York? You live on Fifth Avenue. You come to the office on Madison. What do you know of the Bronx? And Queens? New York is a slum.’ “
He later did similar books on Rome, Moscow,Tokyo and Paris: Rich, chaotic portraits of people and life on the street.
Vogue wanted that look on its pages. But still, Klein says, “fashion had no interest for me. I would take photographs in the studio. I would go back home and my wife would say, ‘What is the fashion like for this season?’ And I would say, ‘I have no idea.’ “
He laughs heartily. But fashion photography did subsidize his interests.
Klein later satirized the entire industry in the film Who Are You Polly Maggoo?, which asks: What’s below the surface of a supermodel?
He also went to Africa and made a film about Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader. He made a film about Muhammed Ali’s huge personality, just at the time he embraced Islam and changed his name. They were art films, and none of them were commercially successful. But Klein has never seemed to care.
One approach to life is a programmed path to a clear-cut career — choose early and don’t deviate. But William Klein suggests that life can be the exact opposite of that, full of deviation.
“If I look back,” he says, “I think most of the things I did — the films, the books, the collaborations with these magazines — were mostly by accident.”
Perhaps that’s why he is so free, so multifaceted and so irreverent.