Five cities, one photographer: William Klein retrospective in Brussels

Born in Harlem, New York, into an impoverished Jewish family, William Klein dropped out of university and moved to Paris in 1948, where he pursued work as a photographer and graphic designer.

Though the City of Light would become his adopted home, his daring artistic approach soon caught the eye of Alexander Liberman, the legendary art director at the American fashion magazine Vogue, who took the young Klein under his wing.

And so by 1954, Klein was back in New York, this time as a photographer on assignment. The resultant collection of images, Life is Good and Good for You in New York, is considered one of the most influential books in the history of street photography.

Until Klein came along, the wide-angle lens was largely the preserve of landscape photographers. Undeterred by criticism, he used its distorting effects to put emphasis on his human subjects.

From Latino kids dancing in the streets of Brooklyn to an upscale charity ball at the Waldorf Hotel, his photos exemplify the cultural and racial diversity of the Big Apple.

With the raw and close-up portrayal of New Yorkers living out their daily lives in the bustling metropolis, Klein was able to capture the spirit of a time and place like no photographer before him. Devoid of the clean and polished aesthetic of his contemporaries, his aggressive yet honest style paved the way for many to follow.

At the 5 Cities exhibition at Botanique, Klein’s New York of the 1950s takes centre stage, but, as evidenced in the name, four more city books would follow: Rome, Moscow, Tokyo and Paris, each characterised by the same high-contrast, up-close imagery.

Covering nearly half a century of work, this is a well-deserved tribute to arguably the most groundbreaking street photographer of the 20th century.

Originally published in Flanders Today

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