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Gallery Goer

Super Cool
By Exhibitionist

Paris: Anouk Aimee, 1961
William Klein (1928 -) is in the pantheon of great photographers who are always described as 'revolutionary' because of the ways in which they changed the history of photography. Klein didn't perhaps set out to shock, but in it's time his work was thought of as shocking.

The Lumiere Brothers Photo Gallery is showing twenty six of Klein's works from 1956 to 1962, the period when he was working in Paris for American Vogue. Shock and high fashion are not the most immediately obvious partners; but that's the point, we don't expect a gown to outrage. That is today we don't, not after Bruce Weber, say, or Helmut Newton. But Klein started the fashion for taking a frock off the runway and putting it on the tarmac.

Klein was born the son of poor Jewish immigrants in New York. He was brought up in an Irish neighbourhood, anti-semitism was on every street corner, and he liked to take himself off to the Museum of Modern Art. He served as a radio operator in the US Army in Germany and France, and moved to Paris to live there in 1948. He had decided to become a sculptor, and he studied briefly with Fernand Leger.

It was Leger who encouraged his pupils to reject the stiffness of academicism, and Klein's sculptures took the form of moving light panels on photosensitive glass. He took up photography to record the movements of his sculptures, and then gradually moved on to other subjects.

Rome: Simone Daillencourt, NinaDevos; Capucci, 1962
Alexander Liberman, art director of American Vogue, made Klein's career when he attended a showing of Klein's sculptures, and soon after saw Klein's early photographs. Liberman invited Klein to shoot fashion. It was an inspired invitation. Klein's very inexperience gave his work its effectiveness. He didn't know how to snap in a studio (or didn't want to learn) and so he took the models out into the street. This exhibition shows Klein at his best, mixing the elegance of high fashion with his irreverent takes on what was accepted as a 'good photo.'

All of Klein's photos here are black and white. When we talk about a black and white fashion photo, perhaps it brings to mind an image that is carefully staged, in the mould of Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene and Richard Avedon. Klein is a part of this tradition, and also the man who pulled it out of its straight-edged focus.

Klein was one of the first to use wide angle and telephoto lenses, and there are many examples here of the ways in which the resulting print simultaneously brings us closer to the subject - we recognise the street life around the models - and makes it more distant by not allowing us to get too close.

Nothing dates so much as fashion, however, and Klein is no exception. He cannot make us forget that an A line dress or pancake make-up is out of date; but his photos live beyond that season's collection because couture is an integral part of the whole composition - it isn't allowed to dominate.

The photographs at the Lumiere are marked 'Contemporary Print', meaning that they are not the original prints taken when the negatives were first produced. The gallery, however, confirmed that Klein himself produced the prints and arranged the framing. Does this mean that they are somehow second-best? Yes, if you value a photograph only by the date of its original printing; no, if you accept them as a second 'original' signed by the photographer.

New York: Evelynn Tripp, Isabella Albonico, Nena von Schlebrugge; Talmack, 1962
What determines the price of a photograph is a combination of the aesthetic merits of the photograph itself, and the popularity of the photographer. The two factors are not always in synchronisation. For example, Cecil Beaton is as good as any of the other photographers mentioned in this article, but his work can be bought for less than $1,000. He is seen as too 'polite,' not challenging enough in this world which values shock more than anything else. Klein, however, has the necessary street cred.

The Lumiere is selling the 50cm x 60cm prints for $5,800, and the 30cm x 40cm prints for $3,800. Does that make them worth buying? Consider that at Sotheby's last year, the recently deceased Helmut Newton's Sie Kommen, Dressed/Sie Kommen, Naked, shot in 1981 and printed in an edition of 85 in 1984, made $114,000.

William Klein
When: Through June 15
Where: Lumiere Brothers Photo Gallery, Central House of Artists, Room A51, 10 Krimskii Val, Moscow
Tel/Fax: +7 095 238 7753

© 2005 Jeremy Noble