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A maverick in focus

A Paris retrospective puts the street-fueled intensity of provocative photographer William Klein in career-spanning context.

January 15, 2006|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Paris — A boy with the face of a killer points a gun so close it blurs. The photograph seems to capture what is wrong with today's shocking world. But it is testimony to 1950s New York, and the youngster with the toy gun has been teased by the maverick photographer and filmmaker William Klein -- who ran into some aspiring little street punks one day in 1955 while making his first book of photos -- "to look tough."

The image is the cover of Klein's latest book, "Retrospective," which has been published in France (Marval) to coincide with what is being billed as the most important retrospective of Klein's work in two decades, at the Pompidou Center through Feb. 20. This wide-ranging show includes documentary and fashion photographs, book covers, film posters and clips and an installation of gigantic painted contact sheets created specifically for the exhibition by the 77-year-old American, who has lived in Paris since 1948.

"Stop it with the boy with the gun," said the gruffly charming Klein at his grand apartment on the Rue de Medicis, with its million-dollar view of the Luxembourg Gardens. He is tall and wears his longish gray hair tousled, a red bandana tied ascot style peeking out from beneath a charcoal-colored cable-knit sweater, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

"Now, I get phone calls all the time, 'We are a magazine in Norway and we're doing a thing on what are our kids coming to...' " he said and laughed the soft laugh that interrupts most of his sentences. "I had maybe 30 or 40 covers that were done with that photograph and the headline 'What are our kids coming to?' "

Klein has always been a controversial, provocative photographer, known for a kamikaze street style that resulted in a widely imitated brand of photography that used wide-angle lenses, movement and blur and has created a dynamic and thrilling body of work over the last half century.

In a review of the show, the Paris daily Liberation described him as "an ogre who turns upside down everything he touches." In the 1981 "William Klein: Photographs," John Heilpern wrote: "Among modern photographers, it could be that Klein is the joker in the pack. Without formal training, he set out to discover a way of taking pictures -- and invented a prototype."

Klein, who is much better known outside his native country, has always collaborated in the making of his exhibitions -- for the Pompidou show, with curators Quentin Bajac and Alain Sayag -- blowing up photos and arranging them like movie stills on a wall and otherwise art-directing the experience. "William Klein has conserved his extraordinary vitality," Sayag writes in the text for "Retrospective," "whether he is producing a book, a film, a commercial, it's always the same manner of creating disorder to better get a handle on the ineluctable chaos of our time."

He designs his own books -- the photos crowded to the edges of both sides of the spine, not carefully perched in the white space. "I always did my layouts and typography for my books," he said. "But I know really important photographers -- Cartier-Bresson, Salgado -- who choose the photograph or don't really choose them all, give it to an editor and he puts it together. I think if you don't do the sequencing and everything, it's not your book."

Klein grew up in a poor family on Manhattan's Upper West Side, spent his teenage afternoons hanging out at the Museum of Modern Art, finished City College at 18, and enlisted in the armed forces in 1946. He was sent to Germany, where he did cartoons for Stars and Stripes and oversaw the work of German art historians who were cataloging artwork stolen by the Nazis. "These guys had written books and they knew a million times more than I did, but I was an American soldier and they respected me a lot because I would give them chocolate."

After six months in Germany, Klein was sent to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. On his second day in the city, he said, a miracle happened.

"I had read a lot of things about Paris and I had toured around trying to find this place that Gide had talked about or whoever," he said. "I was going down Rue des St. Peres and I saw the most beautiful girl in the world. I said, 'Can you tell me where the Ecole des Beaux-Arts is?' And she started explaining and all I was doing was looking at her. Then I said 'What are you doing tonight?' and we stayed together for more than 50 years. It was really a miracle. She died 2 1/2 months ago. I still can't get over it." The show and the book are dedicated to his late wife, Jeanne, whose naive animal paintings occupy a whole wall of the salon.

In Paris, Klein had a brief spell at the atelier of Fernand Leger; made geometric, abstract, unsentimental paintings; and soon began taking photographs that applied the principles of art but did not aspire to be art photographs.

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