The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris has compiled an appropriately over-the-top retrospective of William Klein’s art — photography, films, posters, fashion, graphic design, sculpture, books and more. It’s loud, large, jam-packed, garish and utterly perfect in conveying the sense of frenzy and violence and the defiant outsider stance that makes Klein’s work so gutsy and full of impact.

Klein’s first photo book, New York, New York, established him as a force to be reckoned with in 1956, two years before Robert Frank’s The Americans created a similar stir. He had designed the entire book himself. Klein’s work was rejected by American publishers, and was published in Paris. He still lives and works as an American in Paris to this day.

About his photography, Klein said, “I used the wide-angle lens as a normal lens. I had no philosophy about it. When I looked in the viewfinder and realized I could see all the contradictions and confusion that was there with the wide-angle — that was what was great…If I'd had a Rolleiflex with different lenses, I wouldn't have cropped that much. I had no compunction about cropping, because I did my own layouts…[And] I'd use anything in printing. Throw cyanide, white out over things. I approached photography a little bit like a painter would play with a lithograph, fooling around, pouring milk, tea, anything on it. It was the sort of thing that anybody with any sort of strict, classic photographic training would have qualms about. But I had no qualms at all about doing things with photography. First of all, I had no knowledge of it, and I couldn't care less, because I thought the whole photographic world was alien.”

An exhibition of his early work was held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1980-1981, at which time John Szarkowski wrote: "Klein's photographs of twenty years ago were perhaps the most uncompromising of their time. They were the boldest and superficially the most scrofulous — the most distanced from the accepted standards of formal quality .... They really extend what life can look like in pictures. They enlarge the vocabulary."

A beautifully printed, large-format Retrospective book accompanies the current exhibition, but it, like many of Klein’s books, is available only in a French version. And like many retrospective works, it pales in comparison to the early original photo books Klein made: New York, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo.

— Jim Casper

William Klein: Rétrospective
by William Klein
With Quentin Bajac, Alain Sayag, Bruno Racine, Alfred Pacquement
Paperback, 300 pages
ISBN: 978-2862343587
Marval, 2006
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