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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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Likewise, a decade later, when he was pointing a camera at anyone he found, he recalls similar accusations.

"Whaddya takin’ these pictures for," someone would demand when Klein stuck a lens under his nose.

"Uh…I work for the Daily News," answered Klein, riffing on an inspiration — the look of the tabloid’s smeary, sensationalizing front page.

Inevitably, Klein got his shot. The most famous was of a kid firing a toy gun straight into the viewfinder, his young face scrunched up as mean as could be. Klein spotted him playing in a doorway and shouted at him, "look tough!"

Klein wasn’t the first to photograph his cities. Margaret Bourke-White and turn-of-the-century Paris photographer Eugene Atget both roved their respective streets, but they generally looked through a more wistful lens.

Klein’s "New York," on the other hand, was like a visual sentinel of things to come. His explosion of lights on Broadway and 50-foot-tall movie marquees celebrates the quantum growth of celebrity culture. In grocery stores, Klein saw the proto-Pop graphics of Franco-American brand soup cans and gaudy soap boxes — the kinds of images later immortalized by Andy Warhol. In the autumn of 1954, Klein felt the buzz of the electric future.

One of the ironies of his career, though, is that he was never able to capitalize on his vibrant early work, acting more like the mad hare than the steady tortoise. Lieberman gave him the chance to shoot fashion for Vogue and he repaid the favor, a few years later, with "Who Are You, Polly Magoo?" A spoof of the fashion industry, it was edgy enough to get him banished from the kingdom. However, it was never commercial enough to outlive another fashion spoof, "Funny Face," which Klein’s contemporary Richard Avedon worked on. Klein bit the hand that fed him.

"It was the beginning of my split with Vogue," says Klein, who never shot for American Vogue again. "I made fun of fashion, Vogue and Diana Vreeland. She’s somebody nobody can touch, like the Virgin Mary. She got on my nerves. Of course, she was the model for Anna Wintour and all these editors today, except that she was original. I satirized all that."
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