The Art and Life of Sabine Weiss

“A photograph, to be powerful, must tell us something about the human condition, observed Sabine Weiss one day, it must make us feel the emotion that the photographer felt in front of his subject. These confrontations are found throughout “Sabine Weiss: the poetry of the moment” – the largest retrospective of Weiss’s work ever organised, and the first in Italy, at the Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice. Known as one of the greatest exponents of French humanist photography, along with Willy Ronis, Edouard Boubat, Brassaï and Robert Doisneau (who initially recruited Weiss from the famous Rapho agency), Weiss openly avoided categorization and spent his time long and varied career defying expectations, oscillating between photojournalism, fashion photography and portraiture.

The exhibition, organized by Virginie Chardin, follows these different aspects of Weiss work, giving way to the wide range of photographs on display, while drawing a poignant portrait of the woman who took them. His images capture an encounter, immortalizing a relationship forged between photographer and subject, however brief. This is felt most strongly in a series of photographs of children with dirty faces and toothless smiles caught playing in the streets and in Weiss’ disturbing portraits of patients with senile dementia and mental health issues. “I like photographing children and old people,” Weiss noted, “their masks come off more easily.”

Family camp for the mentally ill, Dun sur Auron, France (1951–52), Sabine Weiss. © Sabine Weiss

Weiss’s honest and unwavering gaze won her a place in the “Postwar European Photography” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1953, and in the spring of 1955 she finally visited America – a contact sheet , exhibited here, illustrates his arrival on the liner Liberté, his head happily sticking out of a blanket. Also included in the exhibition is ‘A Parisienne’s New Yorkers’, a series of photographs commissioned by the New York Times Review, which depicts men squatting against the wall of a building watching a woman pass by, accompanied by Weiss’s written comment that “it seems quintessentially American to spend your lunch hour on a sidewalk and watch the fascinating passing scene.” Meanwhile, in another series commissioned by the magazine, she captures pedestrians in Washington, all gazing upwards, the object of their attention lurking beyond the frame. Such works are not striking in composition, but in the way they dissolve the distance between photographer and subject, image and viewer.

While this seems particularly striking for documentary-style photography, it has a different effect in Weiss’s more staged compositions. In a room dedicated to his images of the fashion world, we find carefully choreographed limbs and silhouettes, a new kind of focus, a sense of focus. The images are revealed as active constructions, but also points of exchange. In his portraits of other creatives, this intensity is amplified. We don’t hear Ella Fitzgerald in Paris 1955, but we are offered other details: the slight crease in her forehead, her focused gaze, her open mouth. Writer Françoise Sagan looks up puzzled from the floor where she is lounging with her typewriter, one hand lazily reaching for the keys. A paint-splattered Niki de Saint Phalle looks warily at a palette knife clutched in her hand. Alberto Giacometti looks at the camera from the front.

Giacometti Sabine Weiss

Artist Alberto Giacometti, Paris, France (1955), Sabine Weiss. © Sabine Weiss

It is in these moments of intimacy that Weiss’ images excel, and the exhibition’s scenography movingly contextualizes their creation with personal props: ID cards, original magazine covers, press clippings and negatives, caricature of Weiss’s head on the body of a camera tripod, an oil painting of her husband, behind-the-scenes footage of Weiss at work – reporting or sitting surrounded by stacks of prints at her desk. Weiss died in December 2021, when preparations for the exhibition were already underway, and yet a vivid sense of the life lived in and around these images persists through this exhibition.

A number of short films offer deeper insight into the photographer’s art and life. In one, she explains with seductive pragmatism how she washed photographs by hand under a communal fountain when her studio-apartment had no running water and worked nights developing images without the luxury of a dark room, while in another her husband, the painter Hugh Weiss notes the differences between their practices: “the photographer sees things on the outside and responds with the inside of herself”. Rather than manifesting an inner world, Weiss captures elements of reality to provide access to specific moments of exposition, both of the world and of herself.

“Sabine Weiss: the poetry of the moment” is at the Casa dei Tre Oci, Venice, until October 23.

About Julius Southworth

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