Louis Faurer (USA)– 1916 to 2001
Louis Faurer, born on 28 August 1916 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Polish immigrant parents, produced iconic photos that focused of the bleakness of urban life, similar to the widely renowned Robert Frank. Unlike Frank, however, Faurer never achieved the sort of acclaim that would make him a household name.
Faurer shown an early interest in and aptitude for illustration, and bought his first camera in 1937 from another future master photographer, Ben Somoroff. Somoroff, primarily a fashion photographer was the same age as Faurer and introduced him to the medium. After a time studying commercial art, Faurer painted advertising signs and worked in photo studios as a technician. (Editor: by now, you should have noticed how many of the great photographers learned their craft by starting out in the darkroom.)
Faurer headed to Manhattan and to the world of fashion photography. There he quickly made contacts including Robert Frank, with whom he shared a darkroom/studio and friendship, and the great Walker Evans. (Editor: Pattern #2 – the great ones learned by working with other greats.) Evans introduced him to Alexander Liberman at Vogue, and his career began.
“Faurer photographed for magazines including Junior Bazaar, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Look, Life, Mademoiselle, and Glamour for more than twenty years. He complained that his work at Life involved too much travel, so he quit in the early 1950s. Most of the prints and negatives of his fashion work have probably been discarded, as Faurer stored them with a friend when he left the country in the late 1960s, then failed to reclaim them” after being repeatedly told to pick them up or they’d be thrown out. – Wikipedia There are perhaps a dozen fashion prints known. According to close friends, he was a perfectionist who was unfettered by practicality and logic.
His best work was shot in the 1940’s and 50’s, his images “raw, tender, and often melancholy,” according to the New York Times. He shot primarily in Times Square and on 14th Street, collecting a motley assortment of decidedly unpretty characters long before Diane Arbus. His work had a casual, feel, as though he was taking the shot almost by accident (a la Frank). His work is raw and gritty but its impact is profound:
- A 1950 shot of a black-on-black line of cars, lined up, and looking like some feral herd of great, wild beasts
- From 1937, a man holds a box of pencils on which is printed “BOTH EYES Removed – WOUNDED. I AM Totally BLIND” People walk by, blurred, no one seems to see him Apparently, blindness is contagious.
- Identical twins stand side-by-side, dressed alike. One glares into the camera.
- A man stands, arm akimbo; his face is covered by a mask that gives him an eerie, other-worldly appearance. Is it a reflection? Is he wearing it? It’s not clear.
- A 1960 woman takes a “Leap of Faith,” over a puddle of water. It is a demonstration of chivalry and female grace, and unlike Cartier-Bresson’s iconic leap photo, it is not a staged piece of shit. (Editor: Sorry, HCB is my LEAST favorite of all photographers profiled, if you couldn’t tell.)
Faurer continued to work throughout the period, having some of his photos selected by Edward Stiechen to be in a 1948 exhibition, and then again in 1955. Faurer didn’t have another solo exhibition until 1977. In 1984, he was hit by a car while running to catch a bus and never fully recovered. His shooting career ended with the accident. Faurer died in Manhattan on 2 March 2001.
To Learn More:
- “Louis Faurer, Photographer Who Captured Compelling Images of the Street, Dies at 84,” Arts –The New York Times, 12 March 2001
- “Louis Faurer,” Museum of Contemporary Photography
Gordon Parks (USA) – 1912 to 2006
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, was an immense talent and not just behind the camera. He was a prolific, world-renowned photographer for Life, Vogue, and other venues; he was a poet, a writer of several books, pianist, and composer (including a ballet). To top that, he became a filmmaker known for Shaft and The Learning Tree, the latter of which was based on his autobiographical novel. He was self-taught, including teaching himself screenwriting and directing.
Parks grew up in segregated Kansas amidst the profound discrimination normal for the time. His family lived modestly, care of his vegetable farmer father, Jackson Parks. After Parks’s mother died when he was 14, and given that blacks of the time were aggressively discouraged from seeking higher education, he set off on his own, living briefly with relatives before traveling and earning his keep via whatever odd jobs he could find.
After seeing photos of migrant workers in a magazine, Parks at age 25 purchased his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, from a Seattle, Washington pawn shop. It turned out to be the best $12.50 he ever spent. Parks taught himself how to use it, and his talent displayed itself quickly, getting him noticed by photography clerks who’d developed his first roll of film. By the time he’d branched into fashion photography, he caught the eye of Marva Louis, famed boxer Joe Louis’s wife. She encouraged him to take his wife and move to the big city. He did, moving to Chicago. He worked freelance and jobs with the Farm Service Administration (FSA) in 1940. In 1941, he won an FSA photography fellowship. There, he produced one of his most iconic images,” American Gothic, Washington, D.C.”, named after Grant Wood painting, American Gothic.
The photograph shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag hanging on the wall, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. “Parks had been inspired to create the image after encountering racism repeatedly in restaurants and shops in the segregated capital city.” (Wikipedia) Not surprisingly, the photo made his bosses at the FSA nervous, but Parks was encouraged to keep working.
When the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks took a number of government, commercial, and freelance jobs, including working for Vogue magazine. After relocating to Harlem, Parks’s 1948 photographic essay on a gang leader won him a position as a staff photographer on Life magazine, a position he held for 20 years. By the 1960s, his other interests took the fore, and culminating in his being the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie, The Learning Tree, in 1969. Parks continued to work until dying of cancer at age 93, in New York. By the time of his demise, he’d won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and over fifty honorary doctorates. His work and legacy continues via The Gordon Parks Foundation.
A slideshow of some of Parks’s work:
To Learn More:
- “Gordon Parks,” Biography
- “The Gordon Parks Museum,” Fort Scott Community College, Fort Scott, Kansas
- “The Gordon Parks Foundation,” Pleasantville, New York
Roy DeCarava (USA) – 1919 to 2009
Roy DeCarava, born to a single, Jamaican mother in 1919 Harlem, New York, wanted to be a painter. It wasn’t an immediate leap into art, of course. He had to first earn his keep in a number of odd jobs: shoe shiner, newspaper salesman and ice hauler. Eventually, he made it to art school, where he began as a painter. However, as was the case with a number of other photographers, as he used a camera to gather images for his printmaking, and eventually eschewed the brushes for the camera.
As the New York Times reported upon his death:
“Over a career of almost 60 years, Mr. DeCarava — who fiercely guarded the manner in which his work was exhibited and whose visibility in the art world remained low for decades — came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time. While an outspoken crusader for civil rights, he felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of mentors like Edward Steichen.”
In other words, in contrast to some who thought photos to be a tool for social change, he fought merely to show life as it was. Similar to Teenie Harris who’d taken up the street mantle in Pittsburgh a few years before, DeCarava was a street photographer, documenting life in his Harlem home. (See more about Charles “Teenie” Harris here.)
DeCarava’s work has been described as “smooth, silky, smoky and gentle; as formal as you might expect from the painter he once wanted to be,” by the New York Times (NYT) and I would agree. It’s not so much that DeCarava’s work stands out because of any particular artistic, technical, or social merit. It stands out primarily because it is ordinary, and that seeming ordinariness made it extraordinary. NYT Arts Beat journalist Randy Kennedy wrote it best:
“[He] turned that neighborhood [Harlem] into his canvas and became one of the most important photographers of his generation by chronicling its people and its jazz giants.”
DeCarava himself stated, on an application for a 1952 Guggenheim Fellowship (which he won – the first by an African American photographer), “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement.” In 1982, in a NYT interview, he said, “One of the things that got to me was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”
NPR Piece on DeCarava, with slideshow:
He fixed that. shooting with the same type of urban sensitivity and flair for ordinary, beautiful moments as Helen Levitt.
DeCarava produced five major books, including The Sound I Saw and The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a best-selling 1955 collaboration with poet Langston Hughes as well as landmark museum catalogs and retrospective surveys from the Friends of Photography and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was the subject of 15 individual exhibits.
To Learn More:
- “Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89,” Arts – The New York Times, 28 October 2009
- “Parting Glance: Roy DeCarava, 1919-2009 (with slideshow),” Lens Blog – The New York Times, 28 October 2009
- “Black and White America (with slideshow),” NPR, 30 October 2009
Diane Arbus (USA) – 1923 to 1971
Diane Arbus (pronounced Dee ANN) was born on 14 March 1923 to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov a wealthy Jewish couple who owned Russek’s, a famous New York City Fifth Avenue department store. Because of her family’s wealth, Arbus (nee Nemerov) was insulated from much of the seamy side of life and the struggles of the Depression. There was an artistic vein in her family, with her father retiring from the retail business to become a painter, while her sister was a sculptor and designer and her older brother, Howard Nemerov, became a U.S. Poet Laureate.
After finishing prep school, she married her childhood sweetheart, actor and photographer Allan Arbus. (Allan was best known for playing Dr. Sidney Friedman, psychiatrist, on M*A*S*H. Yes, that Allan Arbus.) She had two children – Doon, who later became a writer, and Amy, a photographer.
The Arbus’s interests in photography led them to visit Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery in 1941, where they learned of foundation photographers including Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, and Eugène Atget. In 1946, they formed a commercial photography business called Diane & Allan Arbus, with Diane as the art director and Allan the photographer. They were successful, in a commercial sense, while working for Glamour, Vogue, Seventeen, and Harper’s Bazaar, among others, although they both reputedly hated the fashion world. Artistically, despite producing nearly 300 pages’ of work, their fashion photography, with Allan at the lens, was considered to be of merely average quality.
Diane, on her own, studied under Berenice Abbott and in 1956, under Lisette Model at The New School where Model taught. It was there that Diane honed her well-known style and methods, including a straightforward, unglamorous look at the world. In the early 60s, Arbus switched from 35mm to a sharper, square-format Rolleiflex, which would mark her final signature style. She continued doing assignment work for magazines, as well as teaching photography in both New York and Rhode Island. It was Model’s tutelage, however, that set the course of Diane’s career, as per The Guardian:
“At some point in the mid-Fifties, there is a sudden quantum leap in both the clarity of her images and her vision. Her artistic epiphany was inspired by her teacher, the photographer Lisette Model, who, she would later say, ‘finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be’.” Switching to the large-format Rollei produced enough detail that it showed every blemish, every crease, and every failing. Arbus didn’t try to make her subjects beautiful. Instead, she forced you to confront, and perhaps accept, their lack of it.
She is known, perhaps, less for her style than her subjects: off-beat people including side-show performers, the mentally ill, strippers, rent boys, nudists, corpses, and others, while visiting seedy hotels, public parks, a morgue, a nudist colony, Coney Island fairs, and mental hospitals. By the mid-60s she’d participated in shows and had befriended some well-known shooters, including Richard Avedon and Walker Evans.
Of all the photographers profiled in this series, Arbus lived the briefest life. She and Allan divorced in 1969, and she finally succumbed to her battle with depression, dying of her own hand in 1971. Sadly, the first major retrospective of her work was held after her death, in 1972.
Opinions of Arbus’s work continue to be divergent. Some, such as Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, praise her as “a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of what has become recognized as a new kind of photographic art.” Others saw her as an exploitative, guilt-ridden narcissist who set about aggrandizing her pessimistic view of the world. Arbus herself said that she wanted to show the spaces between “who people think they are and who they actually are.” In so doing, she also showed the spaces between whom people present themselves as, and whom we wish them to be.
To Learn More:
- “Diane Arbus,” Biography
- “A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2004
- “Remembering Diane Arbus,” Baltimore Sun, March 2015
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