Sabine Weiss: she made Paris palpable


Among all the highly talented photographers with whom she is associated – Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Brassaï, Édouard Boubat, the “humanists”, who celebrated the everyday moments of ordinary people – it is Sabine Weiss whose pictures make me nostalgic for post-war. II Paris. I wasn’t there, but Weiss’s Paris is the most plausible, the easiest to imagine to live in, and his affection for everyone who lives in his adopted city is palpable. She was born Sabine Weber in Saint-Gingolph, Switzerland, in 1924 and died on December 28, 2021, at the age of 97, in the apartment on Boulevard Murat in the 16th arrondissement where she and her husband, the American artist Hugh Weiss, have moved in for the first time. 1950.

Weiss was a successful professional photographer and took pride in her professionalism. She has taken fashion, editorial, travel and current affairs photos for Vogue, Time and many other magazines; his portraits are a catalog of important European artists, artists and mid-century cultural figures. In 2017, when she donated her archives to the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, they contained 200,000 negatives. But she saw herself as an “artisan,” not an “artist,” and her work, while well-known, was underestimated. New York gallery owner Howard Greenberg spoke with her in the 1980s and 1990s, but never represented her because, he says, “she was eclipsed by other French ‘humanists’. side for sure. I think that’s a quality that many 20th century female career photographers had to have in order to do their job and survive on it. In her case, I had a feeling that this hard instinct for survival may have helped her live as long as she did. I was never surprised that she continued.

“Giacometti” by Sabine Weiss (1954)


Sabine Weiss / Holden Luntz Gallery

That changed over the past few decades when there was a resurgence of interest in his work as well as several major exhibitions and books. Much of the new appreciation is for her personal work, and much of the personal work was taken at night when, after a long day attending to her missions, she walked the streets of Paris with her husband. . “Paris Bus Stop” (1958) is one such image, three silhouetted figures in a snow-covered kiosk in a snow-covered field lit by lampposts. Two couples kiss on a park bench in “Couples Amoureux, Place République” (1955) with the night traffic visible behind them. “The Running Man, Paris” (1953), a man running down a dark cobbled street towards a distant light source casting its shadow far behind him, is rightly famous.

Weiss spoke of “natural light as a source of emotion” and she was adept at using it. In “Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris” (1956), the child jumping towards his balloon is highlighted by the backlight. The sculptor Alberto Giacometti, another emigrant from Switzerland, had his studio opposite his; the light pouring in from a window gives him his 1954 portrait and the authenticity of his jumble of work. The face of the woman in “Marchande de frites, Paris” (1946-48) emerges in the light.

“Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris” by Sabine Weiss (1956)


Sabine Weiss / Holden Luntz Gallery

Alice Zimet, photography collector, educator and advisor, who was with Weiss in November at this year’s Paris Photo art fair, told me about her. “As a person, her photograph was who she was; she was a good person, she was a humanist, she was the last living member of the French humanist movement. When we got to the details, Ms. Zimet said, “What she was known for was street kids, everyday kids. I asked her how she would compare the pictures of street children in Weiss with those of American photographer Helen Levitt. “Helen Levitt watched what was going on; Sabine Weiss experienced what was happening. I think Sabine was more of an active player. It looked like she was one of the kids playing in the streets. A slightly insane example is “Children in a Tree, Paris” (1951), which shows three boys hanging from the branches of a lean tree while a fourth places part of a metal bed frame against its trunk. In Boy on Skateboard (1952), four boys descend a descent on a cockamamie apparatus, a board with three sets of small wheels, while a fifth runs down the street alongside them.

My favorite is “Petite Gitane et Manitas de Plata, Saints-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1960), a young Roma girl, maybe 9 or 10, dancing at the annual Roma encampment in the south of France. She is seen in left profile in a white dress, her left arm at her hips and her right arm raised in front of her. Behind her is a row of men playing guitar and behind them an audience of men, women and children. The extraordinary thing Sabine Weiss captured was the girl’s poise, her intense focus as she danced in front of her people, the sense of her intentionality. And the charm.

The 200,000 negatives from Lausanne contain material that is not even mentioned here. The death of Sabine Weiss marks the end of an era.

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