November 19: Today two exhibitions; one opens, the other one closes; one is in Hong Kong and the other in Kriens, Switzerland. Both artists are alive and working today and they share two things in common; the street is where their subject matter is found, and they both have a sense of humour.
Born in 1924 in Switzerland, Sabine Weiss decided at a young age to devote herself to photography. After training in the studio of Paul Boissonnas in Geneva she then worked for 22 years in Paris as assistant to fashion photographer Willy Maywald before establishing herself in 1950 as a freelance photographer. She and her husband, American artist Hugh Weiss circulated in the artistic milieu of postwar Paris, forming friendships with Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, André Breton and Ossip Zadkine and numerous other musicians, writers and actors, many of whom she has portrayed.
Her personal work is humanist, part of a movement, now called Humanist Photography, in France which included the photographers that so many now worship nostalgically, their images appearing constantly in Twitter feeds of ‘classic photos’.
For these photographers, emerging from the WW2 German Occupation, their medium was a way to rebuild a national consciousness and revive morale and dignity by representing the humanist philosophy of Sartre, who believed in the freedom of the individual to make choices in their life, and Malreaux who emphasised the human tragedy, the epic dimension of the ordinary life. Where better to find these ideas than on the street? Weiss’s street photography, produced independently of her magazine work, for love, embraces this philosophy and was recognised by Steichen’s inclusion of three of her pictures in The Family of Man:
Je photographie pour conserver l’éphémère, fixer le hasard, garder en image ce qui va disparaître : gestes, attitudes, objets qui sont des témoignages de notre passage.
This image does just that; fixing the chance arrival of a fleeting figure into a static, but also impermanent arrangement of figures, Weiss gives testament to the passage of these lives.
Three koulouri vendors lie in wait for customers, their wares stacked in spectacularly artful arrangements as regular as the zigzag wall of imposing blocks of stone behind them which is perhaps the nave of a Greek Orthodox church. Weiss has carefully composed her 35mm frame so that the wall processes in even divisions across the image. The vendors at the rear, and a customer (who chews his purchase and who is perhaps an acquaintance of the one nonchalantly balancing his full tray) crane their heads to the right while the man in the foreground looks left, fixed by a shadowed step against the front of the ‘stage’, his silhouette cut round the rickety table supporting his produce like a little altar. Everything is in place. The photographer waits. A girl appears, running, perhaps so as to avoid the gauntlet of bagel-sellers and the shutter, set at 1/60th sec. opens. The blurred figure makes us aware how still, like handsome stone kouroi, do the men with their offerings stand in the sun of this cool morning. Though she runs, the graceful girl’s movement is fixed by an angle in the wall as firmly as is her planted left leg, caught by the shutter. Her shadow falling on the pavement forms the same solid shape as does the mens’.
Weiss’s Vendeurs de pain is a relative of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare 1932, featuring a figure jumping over a puddle. Both photographers have anticipated their image, but allow for the chance element which a slow shutter speed highlights against a sharp background. While Cartier-Bresson’s catching his figure in mid-leap against doubled Railowsky circus posters showing another leaping figure is clever, Weiss makes a more universal statement. The men hopefully bear their offerings, the woman fleets past them. This is a tableau of male and female relations which gives credence to Robert Doisneau’s statement about her;
Les scènes, en apparence inoffensives, ont été inscrites avec une volontaire malice juste à ce moment précis de déséquilibre où ce qui est communément admis se trouve remis en question (Scenes, apparently inoffensive, are inscribed with a wilful mischief just at the precise moment of imbalance where what is commonly accepted is challenged).
One has only to look at Weiss’s face in this portrait at age thirty, or at others of her incisive, abrupt images, to confirm this ‘mischieviousness’.
Still defiant and still too little known, Weiss turned 92 this year. A retrospective opens today November 19 at Museum im Bellpark, Kriens, Switzerland, and continues until March 5, 2017.
Our other photographer, German Michael Wolf, is also a street photographer. Like Weiss he turned away from magazine work to make images for himself. He was born thirty years after Weiss, just as she was making some of her greatest images, so we can expect the idea of street photography to have changed.
While it is impossible to imagine a Weiss photo of street life without the human figure, Wolf’s contain mere traces of the human. His show Informal Solutions opened September 10 at M97 PROJECT SPACE 363 Changping Road, 2nd Floor, JingAn District, Shanghai, and closes this weekend, November 19.
There is mischief here too…
In Wolf’s case the ‘moments of imbalance’ are created by people not visible. What he gives us are ‘informal solutions’ to a particularly urban condition; the crowded environment.
You’ve been to Hong Kong? It’s crowded. There is also a surfeit of things, and no place to put them. Wolf lives much of his time in Hong Kong and has assimilated this condition; in 2006 he documented the apartments, mere rooms, of residents of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing complex, the Shek Kip Mei Estate, using a wide-angle lens to show as much of the interiors of the tiny rooms as possible, each 100 square feet (9.3 m2) in size. He exhibited 100 rooms as 100×100.
‘Informal solutions’ are those improvised in the cramped back lanes of Hong Kong which throng with pedestrian traffic, though these pictures are strangely empty of human figures. The laneways are the refuge of workers and residents wanting to escape for a brief respite, but once outside they find little personal space. The problem of where to put themselves and their tools and possessions is a constant.
Wolf has worked at this series since 2003 and they might be more ruthlessly edited before they accumulate into a ‘typography’, a variety of photography that I have to say I find tedious in its repetition of what the Bechers did superlatively and best left at that by other photographers.
No, I find Wolf’s ‘Informal Solutions’, appreciated singly rather than en masse, constantly engaging and amusing precisely because they are a manifestation of street photography without people. Though the people are still there; these are pictures of what people do. Each solution is expedient, but artful, ingenious with a human logic which is as funny as Peter Fischli ‘s and David Weiss’s 1987 video Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), a chain reaction nearly 30 minutes long. The casual relations of objects in Hong Kong laneways become corporeal evidence of human thought.