Photography Articles

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Black & White Photographers (2): Louis Stettner USA, 1922-

Sahar Seyedi

Tehran, Iran, 2007

Louis Stettner (1922-) was born and grew up in Brooklin. His father, Morris Stettner, was a skilled cabinet maker from the Ukrain, who first came to the USA in 1907.

Stettner was given a box camera at an early age, and when he was around 12 came across a feature in a photography magazine by Paul Outerbridge, jr. this described how you could use photography to interpret the world and express your feelings about life. It was the start of a lifetime's journey of using his camera to record and share with others, what Stettner was "discovering, suffering or intensely joyous about".

As a teenager and a young man, Stettner visited the metropolitan museum of art every Saturday to explore the delights of its extensive photographic print collection (and especially Alfred Stieglitz's great work, 'The Steerage'). Together with friends he also roamed the streets of Manhattan at length.

He had previously visited Stieglitz's gallery, but had been too scared to speak to the great man, but he sent some of the picture he took with the new camera. Stieglitz sent him a wonderfully handwritten letter of thanks. A little later, at the age of 17 or 18 he found the courage to talk his work and visit Paul Strand, who treated him with kindness and encouraged him to continue work. Later around 1950 the two men become friends in Paris.

Stettner describes himself as a largely self-taught photographer, but pays full credit to the influence of the Photo League on his work. The short part time basic photography course, there was the only formal course the attended, providing teaching "at a New York." He admired the work and ideas of Sid Grossman greatly, and the League taught him "to concentrate my talents on everyday working people and what was immediately around me in terms of living and environment." It also showed him that photography was the significant art from of the twentieth century through its enmeshing in social and political life.

He was well aware of the shortcomings of the League – such as its lack of any broad appreciation of the arts as a whole. More importantly he realized it placed too much emphasis on both politically acceptable content and also had an obsession with print quality (thanks to the influence of Paul Strand, and through him the ideas of Stieglitz.) Despite the teaching of Grossman, it failed to stress the need for photographer to create "original aesthetic from" and an "original inner structure for the photograph."

As Stettner maker clear in a 1977 feature (reprinted in 'Wisdom Cries out in the Streets'), Grossman believed that the strength of a photograph originated in the passionate emotional involvement and response of the photographer that enabled him to find significant new meanings. Grossman's own photography was brought to an untimely end by his death at age 40. Stettner is perhaps the ablest of his successors.

In 1940, Stettner, then aged eighteen, enlisted and requested training as a combat photographer. (He was taught to mend radios.) Eventually he was assigned as a photographer, covering a number of invasions and battles in the Philippines.
After the war, he returned to New York, where he took a number of pictures around the city and worked on a series of imposed pictures on subway trains.

Stettner intended to stay in Paris for three weeks when he went in 1946, but feel so much in love with the city that it was five years before he left it. The Photo League asked him to get together a show of French photographers. As well as providing a first New York showing for Brassai, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Izis and other great French contemporaries in 1947, it also helped Stettner to get to know them better.

For his early work in Paris, Stettner was carrying around an 8x10 view camera, the "result of an obsession not to lose and detail, texture or any photographic quality." Later he was to regard this camera as a "magnificent mistake" as it lost him both flexibility of viewpoint and the ability to stop action.

While in France, Stettner freelanced for various magazines and studied cinema at the University of Paris. In 1951 he was awarded a young photographer award by 'Life' magazine.

Stettner returned from France in 1952. On his way back he took the picture 'Coming to America', a man and two children sitting on deck in mid-Atlantic. The man draws himself into his thick overcoat, hand clasped in his sleeves leaving only a small gap of flesh. He looks forwards, to the left of the pictures, wondering what the future will bring. The child on his left, closer to the camera, seems to be adopting a more positive attitude, pulling up out of the reclining chair, eager to get to grips with a new life in the 'New World'.

In New York, he photographed the city as well as working as a freelance for magazines including 'Life', 'Time', 'Fortune' and others. He also traveled widely, spending time in Paris, Spain, Portugal Holland and Mexico in the following years.
In the 1950s he took some of his best-know picture of New York. Times Square appears in some of them.

Many posters have been sold over the years (some pirated) of his 'Manhattan from the Brooklyn promenade, 1954'. Around 1974, Stettner embarked on a project inspired by the work of Lewis Hine. As well as the USA, he traveled to France, England and the USSR photographing men and women at work. The result is a fine series of generally imposed portrait, about which he wrote: "My workers series is a paean of praise, a long heroic poem in homage to working and salaried people everywhere." It is his perhaps his most overtly political work.

He took many other fine portraits in the 1980s, not least the tightly cropped face and wide eyes of his mentor, Brassai. He also continued in what for me remains his true métier, the close observation of people and their interactions on the streets.
In 1990s, Stettner returned to France, settling on the edge of the city of Paris. He continued to photograph, producing a fine series on the River Seine as well as other work. His photographic career spans around sixty years and has produced many fine works.

Stettner believed and worked in a tradition of 'Humanist Realism,' in which he saw the central force and concern of photography as “other people as individual human beings, interacting with society and the world around them”. Stettner refused to bend with the times and remained true to his vision of Humanist Realism in photography.

To see his photos and more information visit: