“No image-maker has fed on the energy and chance of the urban scene with quite the same appetite as William Klein,” wrote author David Campany in his recent book On Photographs.
That energy—so fresh over half a century ago and still potent now—is one Klein did not let languish, and in fact gave new life to. In Painted Contacts (published by Delpire Éditeur on October 15), Klein upends the notion of archives as fixed and inviolable. He playfully defiles them with bright colors and graphic reframing that refocuses the viewer’s gaze, making the reupholstered contact sheet a new art form in and of itself. Robert Delpire, who wrote an introduction to the book when it was first published in 2008 as Contacts, equated Klein’s roguish gesture as “the sort of thing writers, famous for the austerity of their work, would allow themselves when writing a comedy.”
Born in 1928, Klein grew up in New York City and, following his studies, joined the American army. After being stationed in Germany, he decided to stay in Europe post-war to become a painter, studying briefly with Fernand Léger in Paris. Although the French capital would become his home for life, in 1954 he spent time in his native city. Klein translated his on-the-ground experience—full of hustlers, grit, and endless stamina—into an unflinching photographic style that associated noir humor with social satire. He published a compendium of his New York images in France (…the book wasn’t published in the U.S. until 40 years later); it became a pillar of the photographic milieu. Thereafter, Klein did a series of similarly in-your-face city portraits including Rome (1956), Moscow (1961) and Tokyo (1962), all characterized by their cinematographic layouts. In 1958, Klein shot the short film Broadway by Light, and in the following decade focused on making movies: Muhammad Ali, The Greatest; Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther; The Little Richard Story; Far from Vietnam; Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, amongst others. Delpire described Klein as “one of the most right on witnesses of his time.”
During the late 1980s, Klein was commissioned to do a series of short films on photography. In a post-script to Painted Contacts, he explained his idea was to “have a camera track along a strip of contacts, stopping at the chosen image with the commentary of the photographer explaining why for him that frame was ‘successful’… As the camera moved you’d see the misses, the nothing photos and then the hit.” This approach—no… no… no… not yet… YES!—created a remarkable feeling of anticipation, in the viewer and even in Klein himself. “As the frames rolled by, a certain excitement would develop and if you knew my work you could guess what was coming and a suspense would build up,” he noted. “The red grease pencil marks started to appear and the camera would slow down and stop.”
Klein decided to utilize that anticipatory feeling from the short films and apply it to still photographs. Grease pencils didn’t visually work at a larger scale, but enamel paint did—it could change the surface of an image with a single application. Using his contact sheets as source material opened up an understanding of the larger photographic process, a sharp shift from looking at a clean print in isolation. The lead-in to the final result was as important as the final result itself, because it wasn’t hiding the thinking behind the winning print. The misfires were honored as part of a photographer’s reality and, in fact, confirmed the favored image’s composition to be the strongest. In this sense, Klein demonstrates how essential the selection and the editing process is to photography, determining the ‘chosen’ pictures amidst less-captivating brethren. He guides our gaze throughout his work, taking on optic leadership. The viewer’s eye can wander, but Klein has directed the spotlight. The power of the frame is communicated anew through the liveliness of the colored rectangle, and the decisiveness of Xs imposed upon cast aside images. The photographs and painting are all of course by William Klein—but so is the book layout and cover design. It’s a complete conceptualization, a total mastery of vision.
The book’s cover features a 1993 self-portrait (painted circa 1997), but in the pages therein, Klein captures the performative and collective nature of street life. His images feature groupings of people—models backstage at fashion shows (Alaïa, Emanuel Ungaro, Issey Miyake, Jean Paul Gaultier), activists at political rallies, kids, excited soccer fans, joyful gay pride parades, the signage that speaks across the silence (“Look Left,” “ACT UP,” “l’Humanité,” “God is a Republican”). Klein’s images span not just New York and Paris but Dakar, Miami, London, Torino, Atlanta, and Detroit, but they are all underpinned by what it means to come together in urban space.
The tone of the images shifts through the addition of graphic schemes and color application that alter the “feel” of the original images, sometimes softening the harshness, sometimes matching the spirit. Four pompous-seeming men in suits and hats, celebrating the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Longchamp in Paris in 2000 (painted circa 2002), suddenly convey less decorum when offset by two shades of blue paint. Klein’s infamous “Club Allegro Fortissimo,” shot in a muggy bathhouse in Paris in 1990 (and painted circa 2000), is the image that concludes the book. The voluptuous women featured—so confident and fierce and magnetic with their defiant gazes—seem a little more convivial outlined in red, yellow, and purple.
The effect of Klein’s paint is one of doodling: fun, silly, improvised. “There was nothing decorative about this approach,” Delpire stated, “but the will to create a graphic bridge between painting and photography that was to be appreciated as such.” Klein’s creative trajectory had started with painting, but “the way I worked was the opposite of the time I spent with Léger and, afterwards, with hard edged geometrical abstractions,” he clarified. This unique painting-photography hybrid revived the thrill associated with his original material “When I started painting the Contacts, it was all brush strokes and jubilation,” he said. “The jubilation of painting recalled the celebration of taking the photo.”
By Sarah Moroz
Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. She writes about photography, art, and various other cultural topics.
William Klein, Contacts
Published by Delpire