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The Street Life

William Klein, the cranky old man of American photography, has a new book, “Paris + Klein,” in which he captures street life in the City of Light.

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Klein was raised in the scruffy upper reaches of Manhattan’s West Side. Dreaming of a life as a painter in Paris, he joined the army and went to Germany during World War II. Afterward, he was one of 25 GIs selected for a goodwill exchange program at the Sorbonne in Paris, where Klein even studied in the studio of Fernard Leger. But it was a chance meeting with Condé Nast’s Alexander Lieberman that brought him to New York in 1954 and gave him a new career with a camera.

"I saw New York differently after being in Paris for a few years," he recalls. "I saw it from two points of view — one part of me was the wiseass New Yorker, the other was a snotty Parisian."

The snotty Parisian in him was amazed by the city’s crowds and rogue energy. It was the wise-ass New Yorker, perhaps, that believed he could catch it all on film.

"Everything I saw knocked me out," Klein says. "I went into crowds and shot point blank. I was like an anthropologist with the Zulus. They need to be studied and indexed."

His attempt to contain the entire city between two covers — like a fission reaction held uneasily in a china teacup — led him to design innovations as well. Klein laid out "New York" with a rascally disregard for all the mid-century conventions — clean focus, neat composition and crisp prints with tidy white borders — and created a new kind of photo book.

"People were either knocked out or pissed off," says Klein, who is clearly pleased with either reaction. "I was using, on big double pages, photographs most photographers would have thrown out — blurry, grainy, whatever."

But perhaps the real essence of Klein’s work arises from his genius as an improviser. He offers a telling anecdote from his teenage years, when straying too far into a dodgy neighborhood could invite trouble from local toughs itchy for a rumble.

"Whaddya lookin’ at," the older kids would demand. Klein would look right back, reach into his pocket for a packet of cigarettes and ask, "gotta light?" No more trouble.
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