19th Jul 2018
William Klein’s strikingly unconventional fashion and street photographs challenged prevailing notions of ‘good photography’ when he began working in 1950s New York. He had studied painting in Paris under Fernand Léger, and returned to his native New York City in 1954 with an anarchic energy and outsider’s eye. Klein showed new ways of taking, processing and presenting photographs. His photographs show models and ordinary people on the street in extreme close-up with wide-angle distortions, and often used deliberate blurring and unusual, dynamic compositions.
In 1955 Alexander Liberman, the art director of Vogue, saw an exhibition of Klein’s abstract photography and offered him a contract to undertake fashion work in New York. Klein worked for the publication until 1965. Liberman said of Klein, “in the fashion pictures of the fifties, nothing like Klein had happened before. He went to extremes, which took a combination of great ego and courage. He pioneered the telephoto and wide-angle lenses, giving us a new perspective.” Klein was given relative free rein to experiment and push boundaries, and Vogue financed his ground breaking publication Life is Good and Good for You in New York, published in 1956.
Klein’s most iconic fashion photograph, Nina + Simone, Piazza di Spagna, appeared in Vogue in April 1960. The image is strikingly graphic. Two models in boldly designed couture dresses pass each other at a zebra crossing. Klein took a telephoto lens up onto the steps above the Piazza di Spagna and instructed the models to walk back and forth until they started to attract attention. The scenario eventually caused havoc when people began to stop and stare and the traffic surrounding the square came to a virtual stand-still. The two models eventually began to attract unwanted attention from men, and the shoot had to be called to an abrupt halt.
This image is by far the best example of Klein’s ability to contrast high-end fashion with the energy and movement of modern urban life. The use of the telephoto lens creates a foreshortened effect, flattening the perspective in the image. The bold formal element and strong contrast bring attention to the two striped dresses. It is theatrical and powerful but remains to this day effortlessly cool. Klein has described this image as “one of the best fashion photographs ever.”