Speech given in appreciation of William Klein
William Klein Symposium, Cornell - University, 1992   What is to follow is an appreciation of an unflinching talent. Myself, I am a confrontational, modernist-leaning photographer. I have a perspective from the vantage point of the waning of Postmodernism and the dawning of what, for lack of a better term, can be called Post-Postmodernism. These terms are really only used here to establish a time frame between the peak of William Klein’s work, to its rediscovery, to its current lionization.
In the course of history, real talent weathers the ironies of our changing critical modes. Postmodernism found its object in a sphere that was neither wholly cultural nor wholly institutional. It is in the tensely renegotiated space between the two that we might reevaluate Klein’s later work with regard to his use of subjects, his graphic overlays, his constructed collages and his painterly strokes. Here Klein parodies fashion, media and power. He now operates inside the power structure with the authority of fame and achievement while contemplating his own position at the same time.
When I think about Klein’s early work, its undaunted directness, its energy and its visceral sensuality, I think of Sophia Loren and specifically her comment (on the jacket of Klein’s book, Rome) “Klein has an eye like a knife. He is ruthless and outrageous but never mean. He is tender and funny and violent and I’m sure, really in love.” In love with himself, with his family, with his cities, with crowded spectacles, with masses of flesh, with the medium of photography (about which he was once flippant), with his own vision, with the act of looking and being looked at—Klein’s vision is an affair between the self-image and the public’s image. It is a powerful expression of the primordial pleasure taken in the act of looking.
What narcissism allows his brash intrusion, his deliberate intervention, his confrontational stance? One observes him standing tall, peering undaunted into the masses unchecked. He announces his presence with a confident authority and a knowing manner that is not only streetwise but also cultivated and sophisticated. He crosses like a cat from the salons of the powerful and glamorous to the backrooms of the lowly and struggling. Klein’s ego has found a constantly moving stage in the object world from which we can evolve his own particular illusion of reality. His intrusive camera allows him the power of the director—no wonder he makes movies too! He moves, distorts and forces a return glare from his subject. Who is this observer, and what are his limits?
Today there is a great difference between how the street photographer has to act and how Klein worked during his peak. Today no one gets as close. Permission is an abscess on looking. The postmodern world is a more hostile environment that talks and leers back at the self-appointed authority. Klein anticipated this fact by intensely framing his subject’s scowl. He provoked a confrontation in order to create his subject. The photographs are mostly about the interruption of a scene created by his presence. Because he is referencing his own act of observation, he is not objective. He was postmodern before Postmodernism. (It is no secret that the non-objective intrusion of Klein’s photographs irritated the dominant aesthetic of the Museum of Modern Art and offended the cannon of John Szarkowski.) His work is as different from that of a peer such as Robert Frank as Cindy Sherman’s is from William Eggleston’s.
William Klein is almost always the outsider—the alien in his own country and in his adopted one as well. His accent is just foreign enough for him to feign innocence in his approach. But, he is in control, and he doesn’t need our approval. If anything, he is there to disapprove of us. He takes pictures with a vengeance and directs his visual barbs at the stereotypical “bourgeois” American, “haughty” French, “inscrutable” Japanese, “plodding” Russian and “comic” Italian! He is so savvy and so unflappable that he can take shots at any establishment.
His archetypes are not individuals, but crowds, people gathered together are not individuals but crowds, people gathered together. The concern is the posturing and posing that repeats itself in the mass. To quote the Italian Romantic, Carlo Uva, “He would love to love democracy if he could make the crowd more mobile and the individual more ignoble.”
In Freudian terms, Klein is engaged in a kind of active scopophilia which demands identification of the ego through his fascination and recognition of his own kind. His subjects are alienated, so too is he. The ability and power with which an artist manages his neurosis is a defining factor of his artistic greatness. Klein shapes his fantasies and gives them social references. Artists don’t see things as they are but as they see them. He has admitted to the autobiographic nature of his New York book, He describes himself as a prizefighter. “Sometimes I take shots without aiming just to see what happens. I rush into the crowd. Bang!” There is no mistaking who Klein’s heroes are: the brash outsider, the excluded, the establishment reject, the ignored genius and the maligned champion. Need I remind us of his great film about Muhammad Ali? Remarking on the so-called cognoscenti of the boxing world Klein said: From the beginning, Ali said he was the Greatest and everyone laughed. Boxing experts, the most nearsighted and pompous of experts would take on Talmudic airs, smile, bring out gibberish statistics and Louis and Marciano and other Godzillas, but what did they know? Ali was the Heavyweight Champion of everything. Especially everything American.Hype, PR, Media, Showbiz, Street Theater, Rap, black humor, moneymaking and Politics.And several things not particularly American, like courage and conviction.
Is this an anti-modernist statement? Postmodernists have no heroes. Klein harbors some admiration here and there. Albert Camus in his existential notebooks gives us a definition of Klein’s view of the world. “Real nobility is based on scorn, courage, and profound indifference.” A creative artist like Klein has the capacity to record his own indifference. The camera extends the ability for impressions and experiences that reflect his nature. It gives Klein the space to operate alongside and within the institutions of authority and the art world itself. He is characteristic of the post-modernist mistrust of the position of the outsider who co-ops himself by his own creative act and the recognition and success of it. “His disdain was so powerful that it attracted his distracters so that they were no more . . . ” —Carlo Uva.