Lisette Model, 1901-1983, a gutsy photographer

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Lisette Model, Self-portrait.

Born in Vienna an Austro-Hungarian November the 10th 1901 she died in New York City an American the March the 30th 1983. Her father, a doctor of Jewish descent, was Austro-Italian and her mother was a French Catholic. She studied music and was influenced all her life by the teachings of the composer Arnold Schönberg. She left Austria for France when her father died in 1924. She then stopped studying music in order to start to learn visual arts. She was the student of André Lhote whom will also teach Henri Cartier Bresson and George Hoyningen-Huene. She starts practicing photography with her sister Olga Seybert before studying this medium under the teaching of Rogi André. Throughout this training she will learn “never to take picture of things which do not passionate her”.

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Lisette Model, La Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France, 1938.

1.       A woman photographer.

Christina Zelich, a museum curator, gives us a good explanation as to why Lisette Model and many other women of her generation chose to become professional photographers. According to her “photography gave women a means of subsistence while allowing then to express artistically and eventually to access notoriety, placing them on an equal footing with men.” We have to keep in mind the Lisette model was born and raised in machos society where only men where accepted in other artistic fields.

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Lisette Model, La Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France, 1938.

In 1937 she marries Evsa Model and together they live France to go to the United States. There, she will become a professional photographer and a member of the New York Photo League. In 1940, after being published many times in the Harper’s Bazaar, some of her most significant picture were bought by the MoMA. This pictures were presented to the public in 1948 next to those of Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan and Ted Croner. Lisette Model thus became a renowned photographer and a financially independent woman.

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Lisette Model, Coney Island Bather, New York, 1939-1941

2.       A career tempered with by the McCarthyism

When she arrives in the United States she realizes some series of photos including one known as the Running Legs picturing the legs of the people walking in the streets of New York, describing the atmosphere of the City through these simple movements. She also photographed people marked by their life, those persons who were on their faces the traces of how they lived.

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Lisette Model, Running Legs, 1940-1941

From 1951 until her death she taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. Among her students where Diane Arbus, Eva Rubinstein, Larry Fink… Through her teaching she kept influencing American Street Photography. At the same time she kept working as a portraitist and photographed many stars such as Franck Sinatra, Georges Simenon, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. However her career as a street photographer was greatly slowed by the “witch hunt” held against people suspected to have ties with the Communists.

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Lisette Model Louis Armstrong, 1954-1956

Also she was carful never to mention it, the first series of photos she took portraying the people walking the “Promenade des Anglais” in Nice, were publish by Regards, a French magazine known for its ties with the Communist Party.

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Lisette Model, Sammy’s, New York, 1940-1944

In her work as a street photographer, she uses the Close-up as a non-sentimental way to photograph people and as a mean to underline vanity which is for her a symptom of a society tormented by insecurity and solitude. It is because of her technique and because of her will to underline the problems of the society she lives in, that Lisette Model is considered as a Social Photographer.  In order to take her pictures, Model never speaks to her subjects and that what she advised her students. According to her, people “have the physiognomy of the life they’ve had and of their emotions.” Through the surface transpires the reality of what people really are.

It is in this spirit that she worked with the Photo League. Unfortunatly, this institution was soon accused by the McCarthyism. Also she was interrogated by the authorities, she never was accused of being a Communist. However, her career was deeply affected by “the witch hunt” and she never was able to sell her pictures to magazines afterword. Nevertheless she kept taking pictures, going back to her old passion by taking pictures of people going to the Opera House, giving us a great panorama of the New York Society of her time.

Weegee 1889-1968, an open window on the Great Depression

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Weegee-Unknown photographer. Probably taken in the 40′

Arthur Fellig, born Usher Fellig, is better known under his nickname Weegee. He is an American photographer known for his picture of the night life in New-York City during the Great Depression. He is a field photographer who fancies sensationalism of new items. He documents the life of the New-Yorkers in a unique way, becoming one of the fathers of urban photojournalism.

He was brought up in a modest family who had to flee because of the pogroms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother caught up with his father (a rabbi) in the USA in 1910. He chosen Arthur to be is name when he arrives in Ellis Island.

As many other immigrants of his generation, Arthur Fellig had to drop out of school in order to start working and provide for his family. One day, an itinerant photographer stops him in the street and asks to take his picture.

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Weegee, Drowning victim – Coney Island, 1940

Then and there Arthur Fellig decides to become a photographer. He buys a second hand camera and starts to make a living shooting street portraits. He is autobiography he explains that he developed his technic of shooting pictures full of contrasts with bright whites in order to complain with his immigrant clients will to appear whiter.

When he turns 18 years old, he leaves the family home, unable to stand his father’s orthodoxy and ready to live his own life.  For a year he lives the life of a vagabond. Through this experience he will discover the night life of New York, the breadlines and the homeless shelters which will later on become the center of his photographical work.

After many struggles he starts working as a technician for the Ducket & Adler studio where he improve his technics.

In 1923 he is hired by the photo laboratory of ACME Newspictures whose aim is to build up a stock of photography for the national press industry. Although he works as a technician he starts replacing photographers when the agency is short-staffed. He then takes many sensational pictures which are appreciated by the journalists. He seems to always be the first on crime scenes. He earns his name through this ability. “Weegee” is inspired by a popular game of the time (Ouija) which consists in communicating with the spirit of the deceased.

Weegee’s surnatural ability to arrive first on crimes scenes is easily explained. He followed whenever he could the sirens of the policemen.

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Weegee, Burning Truck, 1936 (?)

At first he stays as close as possible from police quarters, waiting for something to happen and when something does happen he follows the policemen on crime scene taking pictures of the victims and the area. This technic only allows him to arrive second on the scenes. For this reason he fits out a car for shakeups and finds a radio that allows him to listen to the police. He then stays in his car in sensitive neighborhoods or near restaurants knows to be mafia’s headquarters waiting for something to happen. This way he often arrives on crime scenes even before the police.

Working as an agency photographer does not suit his personality well since he is not allowed to sign his own pictures. He leaves ACME Newspictures in 1935 and decides to become an independent photographer.

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Untitled – Weegee

During this periode he improve both his technic and strategies in order to always be first on site, not only to shoot the pictures but also to developp them and to sell them to New-York newspapers. He knows that his success depends on the subjects he chooses and at his ability to be the first able to sell his pictures.

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Weegee’s 1938 Chevy “office” and darkroom


He works a second time on time on his car in order to turn it into to real laboratory. His trunk is a darkroom and he has all the required chemistry to develop films. In the front of the car he has his radio, his cola, his salami and his cigars. He sells his pictures for 5 dollars apiece at 6 in the morning. He mostly works for the Herald Tribune, The Daily Mirror, New York Daily News, Life, Vogue, Sun… This notoriety allows him a certain freedom in the choice of his subjects. He willingly chose to document the Great Depression in New-York, showing the impact of the unemployment and mafia’s war. Sometimes his pictures aim at illustrating the life condition of the immigrants brought in the USA by the American dream, living in the street of New-York.

Weegee takes pictures without inhibition. In front of his camera, news items seem to be a part of a bigger picture.

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Weegee, Drank Man, New-York 1945

Weegee’s intentions are hard to understand and it is hard to see him as a social photographer. His way of shooting pictures without inhibition seems to translate a frank honesty with a hint of cynicism.  He masters better than anybody else the art of reverse angles and the exchanged stares. Could it be considered a work of voyeurism to take pictures of homeless people and of poor immigrants? It is hard answer positively to this question knowing Weegee’s life and how he himself had to live on the sidewalk for a time. We can see a tender touch in his pictures for the people he shoot or at list an interest for his subjects less easily sold than the bloody bodies of car crash victims.

Weegee only believes in instantaneity. The everyday nature of his work is torn apart by the dramatic nature of the scenes he photographs. His work consists in immortalizing this short moment right after an accident of an event when the normal course of life already starts to run. He certainly takes pictures of the victims, the accused, the policemen, the firemen and the passersby, creating a painting around a moment of the everyday life a scraping the smooth polish of the American dream. This work does not go against the current of his time and Weegee can be considered as having greatly influence the rise of modern photojournalism, ready to take all necessary steps in order to be as close as possible from the news.

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Weegee, Man sentenced to death, date unknown.

Weegee has an attraction for macabre in most of his pictures. He does only take picture of the victims, but he is also very interested in what happens around them and how the curious onlookers react to the scene. A game of mirrors seems to be played in his pictures and we wonder who really the voyeur is. Is it the photographer who runs to the crime scene, the crowd of onlookers making fun of the drunken man or the people buying the newspaper in order to see the picture?

While taking pictures for newspapers, Weegee builds up a mosaic portrait of the troubles of the American society. For him, his art consisted in “showing how, in a city of ten millions of souls, people lived in complete solitude”.

Most of Weegee’s picture are taken by night, with a flash. He mostly used a Speed Graphic 4×5 with a wide angle lens opened at f16 and a flash offering a “sync” speed of around 1/200. He also used a Rolleicord which allowed him to take really clear pictures at a high speed. The lighting shows a

Il est également utilisateur de Rolleicord, ce qui lui permet de prendre des photos extrêmement nettes et rapides. The light emphasizes the bodies and creates grotesque shadows on the faces. The contrasts and the themes chosen are those of the films noirs of the time.

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Weegee, New-york, 1941

It is hard to understand Weegee’s intentions and therefor it is difficult to see him as a social photographer. He circulates as a free electron in the world of photo-journalism. Sometimes he seems to have a cynical look his subject and sometimes it seem to have the look of a great citizen. Taking picture in times of drama puts up to light the most comical and repugnant parts of humanity. Weegee is ambiguous and often criticize as a vulture making a living out of the misfortune of the people. He is sometimes described as one of the first paparazzo. However he is also considered as an artist good enough to be part of an art exhibit in the MoMA in 1943.

Murder is my Business is the title of his first official exhibit in 1941 and is a good description of his work.

Weegee is a funny character. He has the face of a Mafioso, a cigar screwed to his lips, foul-mouthed, adept of the night life and the brothels, living in his car… He does not have the nobility of what we expect of a social photographer, the white nights of photos… However he, more than anybody else succeeded in merging himself among the people he photographed.

Sources :

·         Miles Barth, Weegee’s World, Bulfinch Press, 1997

·         Kerry William Purcell, Weegee, Phaidon, 2004

·         Unknown Weegee, Steidl Publishing, 2006

·         http://mag-lsp.location-studio-photo.fr/talents/weegee-et-le-fait-divers-a-new-york.php

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) photo-documentalist and humanist

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Roman Vishniac holding his camera – Unidentified photographer. 1935-38

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) is an american photographer or Russian origin. Versatile and multi-talented, Roman Vishniac is passionated about biology. He grew up in Moscow and became Dr. In Zoology and a biology teacher asistant.

It is only during the 1920’s, when he moved to Berlin that he will became an amateur photographer. Through his photographies he captures the dynamism of this modern and cosmopolitan city. He photographs tram drivers, newspapers distributers, students, the city parks, coffees.

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Recalcitrance, Berlin – Roman Vishniac. 1929

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People behind bars, Berlin zoo – Roman Vishniac. 1930

When the emergence of Nazism is becoming increasingly evident, he captures a portrait of Berlin, focusing his work on the sign of the arrival of terror. He starts photographing the new anti-Semitic and discriminatory measures . In 1933 a decree is published prohibiting Jewish photographers to take pictures in the streets. But, with the help of his daughter, Mara, he will keep on photographing.

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Vishniac’s daughter posing in front of a shop specialized in instruments measuring the difference in size between Aryan and non-Aryan skulls – Berlin, 1933

In 1935, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee gives him the task of photographing the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Romania) before the Holocaust. During four years, Vishniac will collect these photographies that will become famous and will leave an incredible photographic record of Jewish culture in the ghettos  and particularly the life of religious people and disadvantaged.

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Elderly man – Roman Vishniac – 1939

The photos he took capture the daily lives of his selected subjects : elderly, children, merchants, rabbis. All deeply focused on their daily tasks take a moment of their time to look the focus and fix us in a very moving way. Reinforced by the black and white photography, the environment seems dark and cold, and the realism of his pictures make it more deep.

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Sara seeting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stenciled flowers above her head, Warsaw – Roman Vishniac – 1935-37

For Vishniac, this wasn’t a simple testimony but a way to sensitize and raise awareness about the horrors that where committed. Roman Vishniac will even introduce himself illegally in a concentration camp and use later his photographies to prove the existence of those camps to the League of Nations.

These photographies are collected in his book A Vanished World published in the 80’s.

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Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo – Roman Vishniac – 1935-38

He arrived in New York in 1941 and opened a photographic studio where he specialized in portraits. IT is during this time that he will take one of the most famous portraits of Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and other celebrities. This will attract more and more customers like dancers, musicians, artists, intellectuals and scientists, all emigrants.

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Albert Einstein in his office, Princeton University – Roman Vishniac – 1942

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Marc Chagall, New York – Roman Vishniac, 1941

He also documents the lives of American Jews and immigrants who survived the war and started building a new life in the United States.

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Sisters, refugees, shortly after their arrival in the US, Central Park New York – Roman Vishniac – 1941

In 1947 he returned to Europe as a US citizen. He photographed the displaced persons camps, the Holocaust survivors, the action of relief organization and Berlin in ruins.

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The streets are free of brown battalions! – Roman Vishniac – 1947

Roman Vishniac is also known for his innovations in color photomicrography during the 50’s and 60’s. He specializes in photographing live insects moving and creates new photographies of the « infinitely small ».

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Cross section of a pine needle – Roman Vishniac

His work is of great diversity, he produces many scientific films that will later be used by biology students. His work has been published in numerous scientific journal and are important data for researchers.

Nature has explained to me many things that books alone could not give me. Science and nature have given me the most interesting hours of my life.
—Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac is also recognized collector, a professor of history of art and a great speaker. At the end of his life, he taught in New York oriental art, Russian, philosophy, Science and Religion and photo-microscopic. Known for his respect for all life forms, Roman Vishniac can be called a great humanist photographer.

D. Lange : « To take honest photographies »

Lets go back to Dorothea Lange, and try to understand why her work has such an important place in the history of social photography.

In Dorothea Lange photographies we mainly find portraits she takes very carefully. We find in them a great impression of humanity and dignity very similar to the religious iconography. How not to assimilate the portraits of mothers to the Pieta ? Or her portraits of workers to crucified Christ?

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D.Lange, Dichted, Stalled, Stranded, 1935

But to keep a measure of humanity, proper to touch the viewer, Dorothea Lange is particularly skilled at capturing the attention of her models. Many look strait at the camera, positioned just at the same high of their eyes, giving the impression that the models are staring at the viewer. These portraits are like mirrors. Lange doesn’t seek to highlight the poverty of these men and women but to capture a feeling that can be transposed to the viewer. See how they are similar to the people she photographs despite the difficult living conditions, poverty and the stigma of hard work.

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D.Lange, Damaged Child, Oklahoma, 1936

According to Dorothea Lange, the purpose of the pictures is not so much to document but to raise awareness, cause indignation and set in motion the political machine capable of making a difference. Unlike Walker Evans, who takes objective and curious photographies of the migrant situation, Dorothea Lange seems to have a more sensitive approach of her models.

This is the sense of honesty from photography : facing a revolting situation Lange don’t hesitate to summon emotions and photograph what move her in order to move the viewer. To reach the triple humanity of the photographer, the model and the viewer, we must give honest and real photographies. She applies to be closer to the subjects she photographs without ever putting her in the first plan nor explaining why she is photographing them. The comments come afterwards, above all comes the image that stands out and is taken quickly : rarely more than ten shots are taken. Lange photographs clearly and fairly. She explains how she took her iconic picture « Migrant Mother » :

« I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. »

The woman’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, she was an American Indian raised in the Indean territory of the Cherokee Nation.

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 D.Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

If the composition of the image is unequivocal modelled on a representation of Madonna and Child, the sadness in her eyes but determined to live, gives to the photography the impression of eternal humanity. This image reminds us of the Brechtian character “Mother Courage” (even if the play was only published in 1942) as this woman seems to be carrying on her shoulders all the misery and abnegation of the world. The viewer can perceive the feeling of pain, mingled with pity and respect without even knowing the obstacles this woman and her family had to live and will have to keep on living. This is the power of documentary photography when it has a social focus. It causes empathy for the situation it exposes without changing it : there is no staging, no complicated poses, no alteration of reality. The idea is to take the subject in its environment and try in parallel to also show its singularity, capturing a small part of his humanity, so the viewer not only sees a simple photography but, the man, woman or child being photographed.

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D. Lange, Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle, 1938

Dorothea Lange photographies are remarkable because they fully represent the ethic in documentary photography and also create emotion, creating a very strong and intimate relationship with the viewer. Without being dramatic, her portraits are touching and « real ». Dorothea Lange work as a social photograph is almost a solidarity work with the subject she photographs. To be at their same height, with a respectful and discreet empathy :

« I think, all my decisions right along, even working in the field when I was doing documentary work, have been instinctive; and I trust my instincts. I don’t distrust them. They haven’t led me astray. It’s when I’ve made up my mind to be efficient that is when I have gone wrong. »

And who better than herself can conclude about her work ?

“To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable… But I have only touched it, just touched it.”

Sources, Bibliography :

http://www.espritsnomades.com/artsplastiques/langedorothea/lange.html

In French:

Dorothea Lange : Le Cœur et les Raisons d’une photographe, Pierre Borhan, Seuil, 2001
Dorothea Lange : photographies d’une vie, Könemann (1998)
Dorothea Lange, Mark Durden, collection Phaidon, 2006

In English, a selection

Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life, Meltzer, Milton, New York: Farra Straus Giroux, 1978
Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, San Francisco: SFMOMA and Chronicle Books, 1994
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Linda Gordon, W. W. Norton & Company (2010)

Dorothea Lange (1885-1965) : Photograph to better learn how to look beyond images

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There are some characters in the history of social photography that give us life and photographic lessons.

It is the case of the great Dorothea Lange (1885-1965).

We have talked about her in our last article about Walker Evans, her almost contemporary with whom she shares a photographic view but also the fact of being known world-wide for its work about american migrant farmers during 1930 and 1940. But her work can’t only be reduced to this mission.

Her photographic work is very closely bound to her life, so let’s dive into it !

Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn on May, 26 1895 at Hoboken in New Jersey. Her family is from the second generation of german migrants who came to America. She denies her last name at twelve when her father decides to leave the family home. She then takes her mother’s last name. The consequences of this abandon will also be reflected in the way she will chose her photographic subjects. We must remember that if Dorothea Lange highlights so well the world of the excluded is mainly because she feels close to them.

At 7 years old, Dorothea will contract polio and this will affect her all her life because she will always limp. Against all odds she refuses to become a teacher despite her brilliant studies, and decides to become a photographer instead. Just like that. Without having taken a single picture before. She enrols to study photography at the Columbia University of New York and at the same time works in small photographic studios where she learns all the facets of the profession and starts photographing in weddings and in the studio.

In 1918 she moves to San Francisco and opens one year later a very modest photographic studio where she specialises in portraits. She quickly finds success and starts having a local reputation. But soon, the urge of getting out of the studio becomes stronger and from 1920 she will start taking pictures outside of the studio.

In 1930 she starts questioning herself

« I realized that I was only photographing people who paid me for it. That bothered me. So I decided to close the studio and removed my darkroom. I asked myself : What am I trying to say ? I really wanted to face me ».

So she closed her studio in San Francisco and started to photograph what was happening around her, to see those who didn’t usually appear in photographs. And there were many persons left behind in the America of the 1930s. The country was facing an unprecedented financial crisis. And this financial crisis had a social impact as immediate as it was cruel.

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Dorothea Lange, White angel bread line 1933

She wanted to use her camera as an « indifference killing machine » and went meeting persons who were suffering from the crisis : the San Francisco railway workers striking, thousands of unemployed looking in vain for a job, landless farmers forced to flee. California still seemed to be an el Dorado for many rural families from Alabama or Oklahoma (it is all the subject of Steinbeck novel « The Grapes of Wrath »). Dorothea Lange seeks to witness the living conditions of these migrants who arrived to California on false promises of better employment and living conditions and who found themselves crammed into makeshift camps and working for californian producers for a very small salary instead.

Dorothea Lange was hired by the WPA (Work Progress Administration) to witness the situation and help find solutions. She will mainly testify, during the fifteen years she worked for the State Services (that will change their name several time), about the profound dignity of men and women she portrayed full of humanity. Her best-known pictures are from this period. We immediately think of the iconic « Migrant mother » taken in 1936. All her reports will alert the public about this situation and will create empathy above all.

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Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother 1936

She leaves what will become the FSA in 1943 after feeling she is not tuned ideologically with the program anymore.

The illness will force her to stop photographing for almost 6 years. She will start again in 1954-55 by making long stories on Mormons living in Ireland. It is also during this period that she will create, in collaboration with the journalist Ansel Adams, stories for the Life magazine. She will also begin a thorough study about the California judicial system.

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Dorothea Lange, Coca Cola bottle children and mother, California 1939

In the early 1960s she will travel abroad, specially to East Asia, Venezuela, Ecuador and the Middle East.

She dies shortly after, in 1965 from cancer.

There is so much to say about her life that we will continue talking about her in our following publication.

Walker Evans (1903-1975) from a mediocre writer to a photography documentary superstar

Walter Evans, portrait, unknown photographer.

Walker Evans isan American photographer born in 1903 and who died in 1975. He
his well knownfor the photographs he took for the Farm Security
Administration (FSA). We haveall seen some of his pictures without
knowing so. His most famous work is the
series of photos he took of poor farmers from Alabama. However these
pictures
are just the tip of the iceberg that forms his work. He was fascinated
by the
notion of document and a radical photographer in his approach of
photography.

According to his
friend, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson “without the challenge
that represent Walker’s work, (he) would never have remained a photographer”.
Looking back Walker Evans seems to be a superstar of social photography;
however he was a reserve and shy person, with the temper of a perfectionist.

1.
From the mediocre writer to the superstar.

Evans was born
in a rich American family from the Midwest. His parents had to move regularly
from one city to another because of his father’s work (Toledo, Chicago,
New-York City). In 1922, after graduating from Phillips Academy (Massachusetts)
he studied French literature (mostly Flaubert) in Williams College. He was a
true bookworm.

In 1923 he moves
to New York City where he lives three years and starts to write short stories.
In 1926, thanks to his father’s held and just like Ernest Hemingway, Henry
Miller and Scott Fitzerald, he goes to live in Paris. There, he tries to take
literature classes from famous Sorbonne University.

Due to his
financial situation he finally goes back to New York City in 1927. He starts
translating the work of Cocteau and Larbaud while working in a bookshop. It is
only then and thanks to some of his friends that he discovers photography. In
order to make a living he works as a clerk for a stockbroker in Wall Street
from 1927 to 1929. The rest of the time he lives the bohemian live of a failed
writer in Greenwich Village,

In 1928, unable
to describe in writings the reality of the life of the poor, he gives up on
literature and buys himself a camera to become a photographer.

In 1930, his
first pictures of skyscraper are noticed and he earns a small notoriety. His
discovery of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugène Atget will comfort
him in his research. As a great admirer of Flaubert’s work a takes up to one of
his maxims “an artist has to be as God in his creation, he has to be felt in
every aspects, but never to be seen”. He then starts taking pictures without
indulgence, looking for objectivity and the direct style unable by photography.

In 1933, he receives a command to document the
Cuban Revolution. This documentary will later on lead to the publication of a
book: The Crime of Cuba.

2.       The photographic mission of the FSA

Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs,
1936

Between 1935 and 1943, Evans will be part of a
team of photographers (more than 30 in total, among which the amazing Dorothea
Lange). Together they will go throughout the United-States documenting on the
drama of the greatest economic crises known by his country and most
specifically the consequences for the mutating agricultural world. The
mutations were due to the will of Roosevelt’s administration and the FSA was
created to speed up the needed reforms. The aim was to convince the American
People to pursue the reforms towards the modernization of the agricultural
industry and this works of communication has to go through pictures. Thanks to
this photographic group, led by Roy Stryker from 1935 until 1942, FSA is still
known today. Its aim was to document the way of life of the formers in The
United States. Roy Striker, inspired by Lewis Hine’s work, employed a great
number of photographers, renowned and unowned, coming from different styles,
only based on the social and political commitment.

Walker Evans Sharecropper, Hale Conty,
Alabama
1936

Throughout 270 000 documents, this
photographer, each in their own way, created a human portrait of the economic
crises. Portraits as the ones taken by Dorothea Lange or those taken by Walker
Evans deeply marked the mind of the citizens of the United-States of the time.

In order to give a meaning to this great number of
photos, Walker Evans was chosen to be “Senior Information Specialist”. In 1935,Evans
started his work with a large format camera in order to shoot sharp and precise
picture of the crises.

He is very attached to vernacular architecture
and photographed the inside of modest family houses and commercial signs in
order to show the gap created between the poorest families and the consumerist
society. This reflects the evolution of the work of the FSA which started to
document poverty in general and not only the difficulties met by the
agricultural society.

Walker Evans in1936, most likely a picture taken by
James Agee

In 1936, while Evans was still working for the
FSA, he started to travel with James Agee in order to illustrate a work of
command from the magazine Fortune, on
Alabaman farmer families. This collaborative work led to the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Frotune never published this work.

Walker Evans, Bud Fiels and his family,
Alabama 1935

Museum of Modern
Art, (MOMA), organized on exhibit dedicated to the work he did from 1929 to
1936 «Walker Evans: American Photographs».
Then it is the first time that the MOMA dedicated a full exhibit to a single
photographer.  The book untitled “American Photographs” that followed this
exhibit will influence generation of photographers.

3.
A picture writer

In
1938, Evans will stop his work with the FSA and goes back to a urban environment.
He starts a series of portraits in the New York Subway that will last until
1941. Through his work he describes the “overwhelming absence of joy” of the
people.

His camera
hidden, the noise of the shutter masked by the subway, Evans has the perfect
condition to make sure his subjects do not notice him.

Are we really in front of portraits when looking
at Evans’ work? His aim is to give out just and instinctive pictures of his
subjets, without apparent empathy and subjectivity. He demands to himself a
work of realism, refusing sentimentalism while creating emotionally charger
pictures. He tries to understand the men and the women living in this society
in constant mutation. The difference between the instantaneity of the picture
taken at a given point and the immortality of the picture itself fascinate
Evans. It is the transformation of the present into past that haunts him: “what
interested Evans was to know would the present look like once it would became
the future” (Jeremy Thomson).

In 1943 he worked for the Time, and then spent 22 years working for Fortune. He runs away from the celebrity he could have photographed
while working for this magazine and runs away from the crowds in order to take
pictures of individuals.

He gave up on journalism in 1965 in order to
teach photography and graphic conception at Yale University where he worked
until 1974.

In 1971 a great retrospective of his work was
organized by the MoMA. He starting shooting in color in 1973 with a SX-70
Polaroid Camera and experimented with this new form of this medium until his
death. His later work is less knows since people only want to see in Evans the
great documentary photographer and the man a photograph social misery. He even
said himself that “color photography ‘was’ vulgar”, which didn’t prevent him to
shoot thousands of color film (mostly of women, friends and students) working
on “counter-esthetic”.

He died at home in New Haven Connecticut on the
10th of April 1975 and his burial was led by no ceremony.

This great admirer of James Joyce looked throughout
his life for the meaning of things with a sense of ethic. He took a great
number of photos on many different subjects. His technic varied throughout the
years between architectural composition and instinctive ones stolen in the
subways.

His photos are recognizable by their shaving
light. Evans loved this kind of lights that reveal a maximum of details on
faces and walls.

Walker Evans,
interior of a minor’s house in Virginia, 1935.

His
early love for literature will never leave him and it influenced his way of
shooting photos. When he works as a master of propaganda for the FSA, he seems
to be looking for realism more than a real militant approach. Pictures hold for
him a place between eternity of art and the short-lived instance of a
commercial or journalistic work.