Parisian and New York street scenes, world events coverage, press and fashion photos, advertisements, portraits of artists: hardly a discipline seems to have eluded Sabine Weiss’s benevolent lens. Nearing 100, this last representative of French humanist photography, whose work is currently on view at Rencontres d'Arles festival, France, lifts the curtain on some of her darkroom secrets and shares her insights into photography today.
In 1954 Sabine Weiss walked down a little street called Terres-au-Curé in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris. She was doing on a report on worker priests — those politically active Catholic priests who worked factory shifts. She came across two children carrying a bucket of water from a fountain: “The little boy wore a beret and socks, but had no trousers, because children didn’t wear trousers back then. The little girl had short hair, held in place by a barrette. She wore an apron and slippers. I like this picture because it really gives a sense of the era. I’m almost a century old, so I’ve seen a lot of different things, which are gone now!”
Over the course of a career spanning 70 years, Sabine Weiss not only “saw a lot of different things,” she also documented them with an openminded and sensible approach, starting with everyday Parisian streets scenes. These photographs are part of the French humanist school, which includes Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, and Edouard Boubat, poetic witnesses to the ups and downs of postwar life.
About to go on holiday, this first lady of photography talked to us with generosity and mischievousness exemplified in her early snapshots full of humanity: “In the street, one didn’t talk to people! The picture was already taken anyway. And back then people didn’t object to being photographed.”
A photographer’s life
Born in Switzerland in 1924 into a family of chemists, she was fascinated with the technical side of photography from very early on and even manufactured her own film. Aged eighteen, she apprenticed at the Paul Boissonnas photography studio: “Apprenticeship won’t teach you the technique. You must have it in you. You must love doing things,” she said. With few resources but with a firm intention to become a professional photographer, Sabine Weiss moved to Paris in 1946 and became an assistant to the German photographer Willy Maywald. This job propelled her into Parisian fashion and society, which taught her to value the importance of natural light as a source of emotion.
1950 was a turning point: she married the American painter Hugh Weiss and opened her own studio. Independent, talented, and determined, she quickly joined the prestigious Rapho Agency, and collaborated with the New York Times Magazine, Life, Vogue, Paris Match. Shortly thereafter, MoMA showcased her pictures at the Post-War European Photography exhibition.
“In the late 1970s, her work enjoyed the growing interest of festivals and humanist photography institutions, which inspired her return to black and white photography,” noted Virginie Chardin, curator of the exhibition, who had previously curated the Sabine Weiss retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in 2016. “In her sixties, she developed a fresh body of personal work that was more melancholic and punctuated by travels around France and abroad.”
Profession: a humanist and a craftswoman
“I did a lot of night photography because my husband and I spent many evenings walking. It was spontaneous work, because you notice things as you stroll around. Especially at night!,” she recalled. Her photographs are the result of wandering and walks. That is how she captured one of her most famous shots, L’homme qui court [A Man Running] in 1953. It was in fact Hugh Weiss rushing along a cobblestone-paved street at the foot of the Garigliano Bridge. “One day my husband and I found ourselves walking in that area, the light was beautiful. I told him, ‘Run!’ and he did. At that moment, I didn’t like that picture, but he said, ‘but do go ahead and take it’. It was good advice.”
Sabine Weiss makes a clear distinction between humanist photography and news assignments calling for her “craftsmanship.” “To make humanist photos, you must to go anywhere and everywhere: around the regions, into streets, cities, suburbs, into the countryside. It takes time. And to have time, you must eat. And so, my professional craft earned me a living by doing very different, more technical reports.”
The result is a particularly generous and heterogeneous body of spontaneous or staged tableaus. “I have photographed simple people, common people, and very famous people. I have always acclimatized quite easily,” she said. Next to emblematic photographs of Alberto Giacometti in his studio, Françoise Sagan at her typewriter, Romy Schneider in her dressing room, from the first Dior collections, we thus find humble people and complete strangers, to whom her lens curious temperament lend a special aura. Robert Doisneau declared these photographs to be “seemingly harmless,” showing “a mischievous bent just at that precise moment of imbalance when what is commonly accepted is being called into question.”
Doing everything it yourself
Whenever asked if being a woman has hampered her career in any way, Sabine Weiss always answers in the negative. She explained that she has never had an assistant and has always been on her own: “No, I can’t say that it put me at a disadvantage… Of course, I worked without an assistant, I was always by myself, sometimes toting very heavy cameras, flashes, lamps … I carried my equipment a lot, but I was strong!,” she remarks with a spark in her eye.
Today, she no longer takes pictures, but has remained curious although perplexed by the possibilities offered by digital technologies such as smartphones. “Of course, I’m interested in everything we do with small mobile phones! You can take a picture of a landscape and then you decide to turn it into a night or early-morning scene … I’ve done a lot of commercial pictures. In the old days, you would everything yourself. You wanted waves, you wanted a fire, you wanted anything, you did it yourself. Whereas now everything is done on a computer. In a different way. Easier. Interesting, but effortless!”
By Charlotte Jean
Charlotte Jean is a journalist and author. A former contributor to Beaux Arts Magazine and the founder of Darwin Nutrition, she graduated from the École du Louvre, where she majored in contemporary art.
"Sabine Weiss, Une vie de photographer," [A Photographer's Life]. Until September 26, 2021, Chapelle du Muséon Arlaten, as part of the festival Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles. More information here.