Life is good for you
There’s a small collection of gems hidden behind the Grote Markt in Antwerp: 24 prints that have graced the likes of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Fondation Cartier in Paris line the walls of an unassuming gallery at number 20 Zirkstraat.
A show of little-known work by the world’s leading photographers in Antwerp
The photographers are some of the most internationally-reputed of the 20th century, and you’re bound to recognise their names: from William Klein and Garry Winogrand, to Seydou Keïta, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus. But the images on show aren’t their most ubiquitous or their most celebrated. In fact, you probably won’t have seen them before. And devoid of any explanatory notes or anecdotes alongside, at first glance this small collection can appear rather underwhelming.
But take your time, and you’ll be rewarded with an intriguing glimpse into human nature and the past. My absolute favourite is a black-and-white shot taken by William Klein in New York that hangs opposite the gallery’s door and packs an immediate punch. The menacing face of a small boy juts out above the blurred barrel of a gun pointed directly at you, and a little girl behind him turns around to look, her face contorted in fear.
It’s an aggressive moment, a showdown between camera and firearm, full of melodrama. The lines between child’s play and reality are blurred, and it depicts a lesson in violence learned in childhood.
Klein captured this moment on the streets of Manhattan in 1955, revisiting where he had grown up nearly 30 years before, a poor Jewish boy in an Irish neighbourhood. It was his first trip back after living it up in Paris, spending his post-war years studying at the Sorbonne and painting. Encouraged in Paris by the painter Fernand Leger to reject conformity, Klein went in search of the rawest of images. His gritty snapshots documenting New York street life shocked the sleek aesthetics of the establishment, not only with their content, but also with their appearance. They were often blurred or out of focus, taken at a wide angle and using fast film, resulting in a grainy appearance.
They were considered crude and earned Klein such a bad reputation that no one would touch his work in the US. “They all said, ‘This is shit, this is not New York, we can’t publish this!’ and I didn’t get anywhere,” he says in an interview with critic Jared Rapfogel for the magazine Cinéaste in September of last year.
Klein took his photos back to Paris. Championed by filmmaker Chris Marker, they were published in 1956 by Editions du Seuil, where Marker was an editor, after he threatened to resign over the issue. The book, entitled New York (Life is good and good for you in New York), went on to win the Nadar photography prize the same year and set Western photography on a new course. Klein went on to shoot for Vogue and to become a filmmaker.
Garry Winogrand was also a native New Yorker and born the same year as Klein, 1928. He became a compulsive chronicler of American life and is particularly revered for his street photography of the 1960s and ’70s. He’d roam the alleys of New York, looking for human drama and rapidly shooting off roll after roll of film. Producing endless superlative shots, Winogrand developed an eye for capturing the tragicomic narratives of everyday life that were played out on the streets.
His one photograph in the collection is a good example and comes from a series published in 1975 entitled Women are Beautiful. A man stands talking to a young woman dressed in fishnet tights and a short all-in-one jersey in the middle of the street. He’s obviously interested in her, leaning in, perhaps trying to chat her up. Although animated in conversation, her body language is more ambiguous as she stands with one arm crossed over her abdomen. Close to us in the foreground, an older women with sunglasses passes by, appearing to comment on the situation behind her.
Winogrand would often wait years before developing his film. On his death in 1984, he left more than 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film – a total of 432,000 photos he took but never saw.
In contrast, Croatian-born Frank Horvat is famous for holding back and refusing the images he doesn’t want. This is not only to save on film but to let the image he wants to see take shape. His photograph in the basement of the gallery is one such lyrical moment, capturing pedestrians dodging through the mayhem of traffic on the Champs Elysées in Paris, 1956.
Seydou Keïta’s portrait of an elegant young guy poised with a flower (pictured) induces an immediate smile. Keïta was a legend in Mali 30 years before his work was ever introduced to the West in t h e 1990s. The local bourgeoisie and social climbers flocked to his studio to have their portraits taken.
In this one, taken in Bamako in 1959, the young man’s jaunty oversized glasses, gold ring, striped tie and white blazer with a fountain pen and handkerchief protruding from the breast pocket playfully suggest a high-performing graduate with a decadent secret lifestyle.
But since Keita provided a myriad of props for his sitters, we will never really know how true that suggestion is.
Masters of Photography
Until 16 January
Fifty One Fine Art Photography
Zirkstraat 20, Antwerp