William Klein (born 19 April 1928) is an American-born photographer and filmmaker, living in Paris and noted for his ironic approach to both media and his extensive use of unusual photographic techniques in the context of photojournalism and fashion photography. He was ranked 25th on the Professional Photographer's list of 100 most influential photographers. Klein trained as a painter, studying under Fernand Léger and found early success with exhibitions of his work. He soon moved on to photography and achieved widespread fame as a fashion photographer for Vogue and for his photo essays on various cities. He has directed feature-length fiction films, numerous short and feature-length documentaries and has produced over 250 television commercials.
Although he worked for Vogue until 1966, he did not consider fashion photography to be his real calling but rather what he calls 'serious photographs'. By that he meant uncompromising, unadorned documentaries about large cities like New York, Rome, Moscow, and Tokyo, that were materialised in his books: New York (1956), Rome (1959), Tokyo and Moscow (both 1964). After the book New York was introduced in Japan, a number of Japanese photographers were impressed by its energy and graphic daring. Daido Moriyama for example has admitted that Klein’s photo books have had an important influence on him.
Klein made his first visit to Japan in 1961. Being guided through Tokyo by government officials, he was able to snag some unique, and at times irreverent, shots; a sumo fight in action, shot from the edge of the sacred ring (the dojoh), a close-up portrait of the imperial couple. His unique access also gave him the opportunity to photograph places of power such as the Tokyo stock exchange and the luxurious lounges of the Diet (the home of the national legislature). When William Klein finally escaped his official escort, he immersed himself in the chaotic city that was Tokyo on the eve of the 1964 Olympic Games, a turning point which thrust the capital in the modern era. During his stay, the famous photographer Eikoh Hosoe introduced him to Kazuo Ohno, the co-founder of Butoh dance, which Klein then followed as they performed in the streets of the metropolis.
The book Tokyo sees Klein returning to the city whose photographic culture he helped to revolutionise. Klein’s assessment of the city incorporates every Tokyo cliché but in pushing them to breaking point it soars above them too. Tokyo is both a historical record and a personal diary. An American in postwar Japan, Klein shared through photographs his surprising encounters with the people, the leaders and the artistic avant-garde. First published in 1964 by Zokeisha (Tokyo), the book was quickly released in several foreign versions.
Klein has been awarded the Prix Nadar in 1957, the British Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) in 1999, and the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the Sony World Photography Awards in 2012. His work has been exhibited widely across the globe, of which the duo-exhibition with Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern London in 2012 and the retrospective exhibition in FOAM in 2013/2014 are the most recent.