William Klein

Our New York editor Janette Beckman caught up with William Klein during his talk with photographer Mark Seliger for the launch of his new exhibition on Brooklyn life

With a career spanning over 60 years, American-born French photographer William Klein is still as focused on his work as ever – a fact highlighted by his most recent series of colour images on Brooklyn life.

William Klein + Brooklyn is a new exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York that brings together 50 images taken in the summer of 2013. It will be accompanied by a book of the same title from ContrastoBooks.

Klein was born on 19 April 1928 in New York. After graduating from high school early, he studied at the City College of New York then joined the US Army afterwards. He was first stationed out in Germany and then France, where he settled after being discharged. In 1948, he enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris and briefly studied under the artist, sculptor and filmmaker Fernand Léger.

Taking a photograph was like going to the moon

Through art and sculpture, Klein moved into photography and was discovered by the art director of American Vogue, Alexander Liberman – who invited him to New York to shoot for the magazine. In New York, Klein found himself drawn towards documenting life on the streets and began moving away from fashion. His first book Life is Good and Good For You in New York, in 1956, captured daily life in the capital and has been recognised as a great innovation in the history and design of the photobook. The book was followed by titles on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo.

We caught up with Klein as he reflected on his career during his talk with photographer Mark Seliger at the School of Visual Arts, Chelsea before the launch of his new exhibition...

Klein grew up on 108th and Amsterdam, New York. Speaking about his introduction to photography Klein mentions how, "I had a friend who had a darkroom and it all seemed mysterious to me. Taking a photograph was like going to the moon. I had no technical talent but once you get into it, it happens."

While in Paris and studying with the artist Fernand Léger, Klein learnt, "Art is in the streets, just see what is going on out there. I had a camera and those were the first photographs on the streets of Paris that I took."

Still living in Paris, Klein was discovered by the art director of American Vogue, Alexander Liberman at an exhibition of his photographs. "He said, how would you like to work for Vogue?", says Klein. "Right then I got a contract for Vogue and they paid me around $150 per week. I did all the odd jobs, shooting still lifes, shoes or fabrics... The only photographers I thought were good were Irving Penn and Richard Avedon – the rest seemed like catalogue shit.

"Alexander Liberman then asked me if I would like to photograph fashion. Around that time, I was trying to find new ways of photographing. Then I went to Paris to do the collections. I thought it would be good to use a telephoto lens and photograph the girls in the traffic on the street in Paris.

Art is in the streets, just see what is going on out there

"Alexander Liberman asked me what else I would like to do and I said I would like to do a book about New York [Life is Good and Good For You in New York, 1956]. In Paris it wasn't easy, the French people weren't that into being photographed by some 'shmuck' with a camera. I roamed around New York and really documented what I saw... I was a bullshit artist and I told them I was the Daily News inquiring photographer. They were half amateur photographs in a way with doubtful focus.

"The New York photos were then published in a book. The book was funky and grungy. It was a criticism of capitalism in America. The French were into this of course and Le Monde had a big front page story about me taking on capitalism in New York."