New York street photographer William Klein is the self-taught outsider who’s trail-blazed modern photography over the past 60 years. Klein, who’s now a resident of Paris, developed a new style of photography that rivalled the technically perfect style of the 1950s. He wasn’t afraid to experiment and broke all the rules of conventional photography.
William Klein: Photographs & Films is a new retrospective at the C/O Berlin photo museum in Berlin. Over 300 photographs are on view, from trans activists at New York Pride in the early 2000s to Muhammad Ali, and from Vogue fashion shoots in the 1970s to civil rights protests in the 1960s. The show also includes vintage prints, short films, contact sheets and the streets of Moscow during the Stalin era. For Klein, “Photography is just an extension of what you feel constantly when you see people, a scene, a situation.”
The 89-year-old photographer told us about his friendship with Ali, his hatred of Trump and why his camera’s his weapon (with his camera on his lap).
How does it feel bringing together over 65 years of work?
When you’re living, you’re just thinking about what you did last week, so an exhibition is like a dialogue with yourself. There are things that I forget, but once again, I’m reminded by them in my photos. In life, when you take photographs, people ask me, “Why do you think this photo is important or not?” But when you work and you see people, you have a feeling about them. And when you work in a new situation, you always have a feeling what’s going on—who these people are and what they mean to you.
One of the photos here is from the 1950s and has someone holding up a sign that says ‘God is a Republican.’ How do you feel about what has changed politically in America then and now?
When Reagan was elected president, I thought it was the end of the world. Now we have Trump and once again, I think it’s the end of the world. But you know, things don’t change that much. These are the little accidents, we don’t know where we are going, but we will find out.
What was it like photographing the civil rights movement?
I grew up in America when sports played a fantastic part of life. I remember how when there was a championship fight with the African-American boxer Joe Lewis, it played a tremendous role in my life. When Lewis was knocked out by German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936, it was a catastrophe for America, for the Jews and all who thought, “Here is a Nazi boxer knocking us out of the championship.” It played a big role in my life.
Is it true you knew Muhammad Ali?
Yes. I never thought I would be close to someone like Muhammad Ali who would be the hope of what is more than just sports and boxing. Muhammad Ali was a dream for us because here was somebody who was great; he took a position against the war in Vietnam so that things would change. I was amazed and very happy a man like that existed.
Now, he just died and I was watching the funeral procession, I was very moved to see the culmination of love and respect. It was amazing the way the people brought flowers, so many people coming with flowers, the respect how they brought the flowers. It was a very moving thing. I thought how much more than sports he illustrated. I was very happy a man like that existed and I was close to him. I saw the different steps he took from 1964 to 1974 to 1984 and for me it was a great story that was unravelling before our eyes.
Did you use your camera as a weapon to help and speak for the people who were silenced?
Yes, I was always hoping people would understand what politics are about. It was something I had hoped would happen and it did happen. I felt things would take place the way they did, and they did.
William Klein: Photographs & Films runs until July 2, 2017 at C/O Berlin, Hardenbergstrasse 22-24 in Berlin, co-berlin.org