Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rome + Klein by William Klein

"I compare Rome, once again, to an artist's studio, not that of the elegant artist, who, like ours, dreams of success and plays a role, but that of an old artist with messy hair who in his time had a streak of genius and who now squabbles with shopkeepers." -Hippolyte Taine

In 1956 while Federico Fellini was in Paris for the premier of I Vitelloni, he received a phone call from a young William Klein who asked to meet and show him his recently published book Life is Good & Good for You in New York. Upon meeting the following day, Fellini mentioned already owning the Italian edition which he said he liked and kept by his bed. According to Klein, within minutes he was invited to become an assistant to Fellini on his latest project, The Nights of Cabiria. His job was to photograph during the casting and document the prospective whores and pimps, black marketeers, hoods, and other "scroungy characters" needed for the film. Finances were delayed and Klein was free for eight weeks to roam the streets looking for his own take on the city, sometimes accompanied by Fellini, Alberto Morovia and other avant-garde writers and artists. Klein's Rome: The City and Its People was published in 1959 and Aperture has just released a new 50th anniversary edition as two books housed in a special PVC slipcase.

Like his reworking of his classic book on New York from 1995 (Marval), Rome + Klein is not a direct facsimile reprint of the original. He has left much of the graphic design by the wayside in favor of full bleed images and inclusion of additional photos that did not appear in the original. As Klein has said of his revisitation of the New York work, "The first book was about graphic design, the second is about photography" - the same approach holds true here.

Klein's Rome, the original, is the only of his "city" books which I do not own so direct comparison is not possible but what I gather is that most of the additional material included in this new edition is from his various fashion assignments shot in the streets with his usual flare for mixing the staged with the unpredictable. Klein has written of the fashion pictures, "I found it hard to take seriously, and the photos were mostly private jokes." What is not a joke is that within eight weeks Klein literally blitzed the city and produced one of his better books in such a short time.

Appropriately not as vertiginous as the New York work, Klein keeps a quick visual pace even among Rome's seemingly sluggish citizens. Rome + Klein opens with a photo of the guard to the famous Cinecitta film studios relaxed next to sculpture of Greco-Roman wrestlers, his rounded stomach more akin to the bulbous fenders of the nearby Vespa scooter than the marbled muscles of his arm-locked ancestors. Klein shoves his Leica and trademark wide lens into the crowds while they walk, eat and play while also making more static (albeit visually loud) portraits of his artist friends that acted sometimes as his guides.

In one, on invitation from Fellini to meet up with Vittorio De Sica, Klein gets a bonus appearance by Roberto Rossellini and a crowded portrait of three of the greatest film-makers is made, but Klein's image is not one of star struck glamour, he photographs them as if they were anonymous figures found on any street corner.

After a brief introduction about the "why and how" the work came into being, the first book is all photographs whose flow is only interrupted by the chapter divisions which make up the six parts. The second book is a thinner volume of Klein's captions and extended texts from a variety of authors along with design elements that playfully litter the margins. It is within these writings that one discovers Klein's own texts are as entertaining and smart as his photographs. For anyo
ne who has read the Manhadoes essay or captions from the booklet attached to Life is Good... will know, Klein is extremely funny and writes in a style that puts the free verse of some of the Beats to shame. I find it curious that his texts are never mentioned at all in regard to his books since their strength is so apparent.

As books, Rome + Klein are well conceived and beautifully produced. I like the split of the two books into photographs and captions, certainly the sma
ller caption book may invite people to actually read his texts which in a combined volume would have been a task due to the larger size and weight. The PVC slipcase is printed with the same colorful jacket image that graced the original. My only critique is that Klein has been employing the same typography and layout for several titles now and the graphic elements lack the former surprise and playful irreverence.

Klein has been recognized as one of the major talents of the twentieth century, not only as a photographer but as a film
-maker as well. He challenged each medium he tackled from painting to photography to graphic design and I would add, even writing. This work, unlike his work from his hometown of New York, was unplanned and the fruit of a chance meeting. In the words of praise from Fellini, "Rome is a movie, and Klein did it."

Note: Aperture is having a Benefit and Auction on November 2nd. Click here for more information.