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The Season of William Klein

Jacket cover for <i>Paris + Klein</i>, a book of new photographs by William Klein.
Jacket cover for Paris + Klein, a book of new photographs by William Klein.

American photographer and filmmaker William Klein is not well known in his native country. In part that's because Klein, who turns 75 this year, has spent the last half-century in France. But this spring, Americans will have the chance to acquaint themselves with Klein's work in a flurry of events that celebrate the artist's oeuvre. Klein's photographs appear in two New York gallery shows and a new book, Paris + Klein. His films are on view in a retrospective at the French Institute in Manhattan, and his classic 1974 documentary, Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, will open in theaters across the country.

In an interview with NPR's David D'Arcy, Klein says his early inspiration came not from France but from the Museum of Modern Art, which he visited often as a child growing up in New York.

"Not that I ever thought I'd be able to take photographs," Klein says. "I was a very clumsy Jewish kid."

Klein first traveled to Paris as a soldier in the U.S. Army. While still a GI, he was accepted to study at the Sorbonne in 1945. Klein soon settled in Paris with the intent of becoming a painter, and for a while became an apprentice of the celebrated modern artist Fernand Leger.

In 1954, Klein returned to New York to shoot a book on the city for Vogue. The result, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, could not find a publisher in the United States but was a resounding success in France, where it won the Prix Nadar. Four years later, Klein produced his first film, Broadway by Light, which shifted between being a night-time documentary tour of Manhattan and a rhythmic abstraction of marquees and neon advertising.

By 1960, Klein was leading a new generation of filmmakers -- artists, writers and photographers who were beginning to experiment in film, says Harvard University Film Curator Bruce Jenkins. "He's one of the most remarkable independent filmmakers mid-century and later," Jenkins says.

During this time, Klein supported himself as a photographer for Vogue. His irreverent pictures of models in unlikely places seemed to undermine any fashion marketing campaigns, but Vogue's art director protected him and Klein's reputation grew.

In 1964, Klein began a rough-edged documentary about a different kind of celebrity -- the young boxer Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali. Completed in 1974, the film tracks Clay's early career, his relationship with Malcolm X and his powerful impact on the American public.

Almost all of Klein's films have been low-budget endeavors, in many cases self-produced, which helps explain why younger filmmakers don't know him. He usually distributes his own movies, and in the United States they're rarely screened outside of museum retrospectives. His last movie, Messiah, which marked the millennium with images of American decay and kitsch set to Handel's Oratorio, has still not played commercially in the United States. It was a hit in France.

Klein's photographs of Paris can be seen at the New York headquarters of the designer Hermes. His latest book, Paris + Klein, was released in the United States in April by Distributed Art Publishers. Street Smarts, an exhibition of street scenes, is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tokyo 1961, an exhibition of Klein's photographs at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York's SoHo district, recently closed.

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