An American perspective and a European one
Born in New York in 1928 to a family of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in the Irish neighbourhood of Manhattan. At the age of fifteen he enrolled in the City College of New York to study Sociology. During the German occupation he worked as a radio operator, drawing cartoons for the military newspaper and playing poker, which allowed him to win a Rolleiflex camera.
In 1947 he moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and this was to be his international launch pad, exhibiting in Milan in 1951. In 1954 he returned to New York for a few months. It was then that he met Alexander Libermann, the artistic director of Vogue magazine, who, impressed by his abstract photographs, offered him a contract. Klein would revolutionise fashion photography with his innovative method of placing mannequins in the street. At the same time, his activity in the magazine allowed him to finance a personal project: to take ethnographic photographs of the city and New Yorkers, “just as an anthropologist would treat the Zulus.”
This project would give rise to the idea of a kind of diary of his return home “through an American perspective and a European one.” Initially, the book was only published in France. American publishers didn’t see the image they wanted to project in Klein’s photographs, that of New York’s high society: whiter, more boring and aloof. However, the book emerged as a landmark in its own right and the Italian, British and Japanese editions followed on the heels of the French volume, which received the French Nadar prize for photography.
For Klein, New York, with its idiosyncrasies, its neighbourhoods, its carnivals and its excesses, represents an exotic land which was up to him to explain. Klein takes to the streets, mixes with the crowd, and hits the sidewalks of Harlem, the Bronx and Fifth Avenue. His photographs are not posed or taken on the sly. They’re up close and personal. Klein breaks the rules of distance imposed by technology and social norms. He gets so close to the subjects that the wide angle deforms them, and these visual accidents lead to an original and expressionist photographic language, the seed of what is now known as “street photography.” For Klein, the street becomes a vast and generous backdrop, an open-air black and white circus. Through his bi-cultural perspective, Klein looks right back at us, eye to eye.
The Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, the Botanical Garden in Brussels, the C/O Berlin, the Palazzo della Ragione in Milan and the 21-21 in Tokyo are some of the cultural centres which have hosted Klein’s vast and heterogeneous anthology. Joining them now, from 7 June to 22 September, is the third floor of the Espacio Fundación Telefónica.