The many lives of William Klein (2012)

The BBC’s one hour Imagine documentary, The Many Lives of William Klein, provides fascinating insights to William Klein’s life and approach to photography, as he discusses his work as an 84-year-old.

The BBC  summarise the scope of the documentary as:

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William Klein has lived many lives. One of the world’s most influential photographers, he pioneered the art of street photography and created some of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century. He also made over twenty films, including the first ever documentary about Muhammad Ali and a brilliant satire of the fashion world, Who Are You Polly Magoo?

Some notes on points of interest to me personally:

  • Klein explains that when he was taking street photographs in the 1950s, it was unusual; no one else was doing it. Cameras and were not ubiquitous and camera phones were a thing of the future (as were mobile phones). This meant that people were curious about what he was doing and their gaze engaged with the camera as it would not to the same extent today. Even by-standers would gaze at the subjects of his photographs, wondering why they were being photographed.
  • While Klein’s street photography was candid, in the sense that it was unplanned and informal, he  discusses his collaboration with subjects to help achieve his vision. For example, in the famous shot of the young boy pointing a gun at the camera, Klein explains that he asked him to ‘look nasty’. He shows how in the next frame the boy is laughing.
  • Klein discusses the variety of his involvement in the visual arts and states that he feels it is important for an artist to develop in as many directions as possible to develop creativity.
  • Don McCullin, who is interviewed during the documentary, describes the difference between Henri Cartier Bresson’s style and Klein’s. He describes Bresson like a ghost, shadowing his subjects at a distance, whereas Klein is involved, close-up, ‘in your face’. His work inspired McCullin. McCullin notes that Klein bought his camera from Bresson – same camera, but a very different vision.
  • Klein discusses his use of lenses – he was the first to use telephoto lenses for fashion shoots; placing models in street scenes at a distance, compressing the perspective of their surroundings and out of sight of the public around the models (sometimes creating chaos around the beautiful models). He also talks about the use of wide-angle lenses for street photography – in the photo shown above the girl though she was the only subject of the photo, unaware that Klein was also taking a family portrait.

For my own street practice, this is another reminder that when using wide-angle lenses one needs to be up close to make powerful images and work the optical qualities of the lens.


BBC Imagine (2012). The Many Lives of William Klein. Available from: [accessed 1.8.16]

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