William Klein: New York Exposed

Born in New York to a poor Jewish immigrant family, devastated having lost their family business to the Great Depression. Few would have thought that William Klein would go on to be an award winning photographer and renowned film maker.

Aged 20 he left the army to become an artist in Paris where he joined the College de Sorbonne to study art. This led to Klein being taught by Fernand Léger which left an indelible impression on his photographic style. He left the Sorbonne as a painter, but soon turned to fashion photography, working extensively for Vogue.

William Klein, Black Woman Profile In Crowd

Although an accomplished and respected fashion photographer, Klein is now best known as one of the fathers of street photography. Returning to his home town in the 1950s, Klein photographed what he saw on the streets. And what he saw was not the glamorous, prosperous New York often portrayed at that time. His eye was drawn to the ordinary, showing people as they really lived.

These pictures were eventually published in Life is Good and Good for You in New York. But his home town did not like the mirror that he held up. He could not find a US publisher. Even Vogue, the magazine he worked for, refused to use a single picture, viewing them as bleak, crude and vulgar, a slight on New York. His images were described as ‘photographically incompetent’ a view shared by the photographic establishment on both sides of the Atlantic because of his deliberately out of focus and exposed images. Despite this, he eventually found a publisher in Editions Seuil and their gamble paid off winning a Prix Nadar the year after New York  was published 1957.

In recognition of a truly original artist, we look at some of the images from the book that broke the mould and made him the anti-photographer’s photographer.

William Klein, Woman & Saks

Black Woman Profile in Crowd epitomises his style and approach. Over exposed and slightly out of focus, it makes for a dreamy haze of a harsh reality as New Yorkers make their way through the congested streets. The centre piece of the photo is a black woman. Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s had taken hold, Klein chose this woman as a defining image of 1950s New York.

Woman and Saks makes a bold statement. The low angle and lack of focus, juxtaposed with a rich woman walking out of the luxury department store, Saks, turns a symbol of consumerism into a nauseating nightmare. He succeeds in inverting an icon of New York to fit his dark interpretation of the Big Apple.

Man looks at Camerain Crowd exposes the viewer as voyeur: we, the viewer, become the viewed. Amongst the hustle and bustle of the crowd a single man looks directly into the camera. It is a striking photo that demands your attention, but at the same time conveys Klein’s sympathies for the workers of New York as opposed to his satirising of the rich woman outside Saks.

William Klein, Man Looks At Camera In Crowd

“This city of headlines and gossip and sensation needed a kick in the balls”, said Klein. “I saw the book as a monster big-city Daily Bugle with its scandals and scoops that you’d find blowing in the streets at three in the morning…. For me photography was good old-fashioned muckraking and sociology… I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter… I was a newspaperman! Or a Frenchman. One time in Harlem I cooled things down by saying I was French. ‘Hey! This guy ain’t white. He’s French!’”

To see more of the city through William Klein’s eyes, take a look at our full range of his work from that era here.

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