William Klein: Afrique @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 34 color and black-and-white photographs, framed in black/white and matted, and hung against grey walls in the single room gallery space.

The show includes the following works:

  • 24 color prints, 1963/later, sized 16×20, 20×24, or 30×40 (or the reverse); 1 large, 19 medium, and 4 small sized prints on view
  • 10 black and white prints, 1963/c1980, sized 11×14 (or the reverse)

No detailed process or edition size information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tucked on a side wall in the midst of the excellent William Klein retrospective at the ICP (reviewed here), a wall-filling affixed photograph of a parade of women rumbles with energetic green blur. And while a nearby wall label explains that this image (and a smaller print and a related magazine spread) were made by Klein in Africa in 1963, the story of what he was doing there, where he went, and what kind of photographs he made there is left largely unexplored. This concurrent gallery show ably fills in the background to that forgotten Africa trip, allowing us to consider how Klein applied his voracious, graphically-attuned photographic eye to yet another far flung geographic locale.

Klein traveled to Africa in 1963 on assignment for Town and the Weekly Telegraph, where he made stops in Senegal (particularly Dakar) and Niger. Coming on the heels of his run of city-themed projects (starting in New York in 1954, and then on to Rome, Moscow, and eventually Tokyo in 1961), the logic of such a trip likely continued his progression of aesthetically testing himself with geographies and lifestyles further and further removed from his own. But instead of synthesizing this work into photobook form, as he had done repeatedly before, these images from Africa essentially lay dormant until they were rediscovered during the process of planning the recent retrospective.

Aside from a small group of images in black-and-white, the works on view here were made in color, fundamentally changing the aesthetic dynamics that Klein had refined over his previous photographic journeys abroad. But even with that wholesale transformation, many of the images are recognizably Klein, the compositions filled with characteristic styles and framing techniques.

Deliberately layered compositions are a repeated Klein motif, with foreground figures left to blur and middle and background activity arranged or interrupted by that frontal action. In one work, a man with his hands behind his head stands in the softened foreground, with a woman carrying baskets on her head in the middle, and a man steering a boat in the distance, the three figures creating a natural progression through space. The same can be said for a man in white unloading his bicycle, with a boy with a tire rim toy blurred in the front and man in a long white robe blurred in back. Kids rolling rubber tires are similarly interrupted by a central blurred figure, and in another picture, three blurred figures create a screen that obscures most of what is going on behind them, their three random shirts arranged into a pattern of blue, white, and red, like the French flag. And when Klein turns his camera to a busy politcal parade, with various gatherings of people in crisp uniforms and matching costumes, he plays with this compositional placement of focus, singling out the face of one marcher or one spectator while allowing the seas of expressively moving color to swirl around them.

By 1963, Klein had already established his position as an innovative fashion photographer, and some of that creativity is seen in the way he applies fashion styling to everyday scenes he found in the streets of various African cities. A set of three pictures hung together drives this point home, starting with Klein noticing a bold black and white patterned dress on a woman crossing the street carrying a box on her head; he allows the rest of the scene around her to drop into blur, capturing the movement of the fabric set against her dark skin. In the next image, a group of girls in fresh patterned dresses mills around, with figures in various poses at various depths in the frame, just like a gathering of fashion models. And the last picture, a woman crosses the street in a billowing striped top and matching headscarf, the sleek cars in the back dropped to blur and a man on a scooter coming toward us, her movement elegant and refined amid the chaos of the city, just like any number of Klein’s most famous fashion images set in the bustle of New York.

Klein’s consistent interest in the brash graphic patterns of advertising and signage finds its way into images sprinkled throughout this show. He captures one woman walking past a wall filled with photographs, three men lounging underneath a huge logo and the cropped letters BRA, another man silhouetted against a movie poster, and a bus parked against a SHELL advertisement featuring a similar looking bus. These images feel like pictures Klein simply couldn’t resist, their found letterforms and layered imagery offering him the kinds of possibilities that had repeatedly informed his earlier picture-making.

While Klein’s playful engagement with people of all kinds has been a hallmark of his work in various cities, there is less of this banter found in these pictures than in his other earlier projects. He does spar with one smiling young man, and groups of kids hound him mugging for the camera or trying to sell him fabrics, but Klein mainly sticks to more arms length interaction in Africa. He often tracks gestures, like the touch of shaving, or the carrying of baskets or piles of sticks, and sees bodies as silhouettes against the saturated orange sky. When he gets in closer, his faces and profiles are more notable for their subtle use of nearby color, with background hues and tints adding richness to the shapes of faces. But perhaps this is where Klein reaches the limit, where his charismatic powers of persuasion start to fall away, and his gaze becomes that of yet another outsider.

As a gap filling study of an overlooked chapter in William Klein’s long artistic career, this gallery show does its job well, even if this body of work isn’t Klein’s strongest or most memorable. There likely wasn’t enough material from Klein’s Africa trip to merit a book length chronicle, and Klein’s career soon veered off towards fashion, filmmaking, and other subjects, likely stranding this unfinished effort. Largely skirting the dangers of colonial observation, the best of Klein’s Africa photographs are rooted in his unique eye, where the lively energy of the streets is arranged and organized into layered moments rich with graphic intelligence.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The color prints are priced at either $11500 or $20000 each, based on size, while the black-and-white prints are priced at $7500 each. Klein’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets for photography, particularly his later prints. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $145000, with the top end of that range reserved for vintage prints of his most iconic images.

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 color and black-and-white photographs, framed in white/black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller ... Read on.

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