Obituary for Sabine Weiss | photography

The photographer Sabine Weiss, who died at the age of 97, established her reputation within the French “humanistic” school of black and white photography, the aim of which was to capture the universal human experience through images of everyday street life. Pictures like that of a horse beating its heels, tied to a snowy wasteland at the Paris flea market at Porte de Vanves, or a child lit only by a sparkler, are on an equal footing with those of their friends and those around them – contemporaries Willy Ronis, Brassaï, Izis Bidermanas and Robert Doisneau, the latter of whom presented them to his Rapho photo agency in 1952. However, during her long career, Weiss worked in all media including advertising, travel and journalism.

In 1950 she opened her studio on Boulevard Murat in Paris opposite a Swiss artist colleague Alberto Giacometti who had moved to the city. Weiss always insisted that she was more of a craftsperson than an artist. That was mainly because, she said, “I had to make a living from photography from the start. It was never just about art. ”But she also demonstrated her artistry in advertising. Her pictures of products such as cognac and perfume dealt with themes of transience and flight: fragrance evaporates from a fountain; a centaur flees from the flames of the kindled brandy.

Sabine Weisss Photo Cheval from 1952, taken at the Paris flea market at Porte de Vanves. Photo: Sabine Weiss

Weiss also documented avant-garde creatives, many of whom became her friends. In the music, Benjamin Britten, Stan Getz and Igor Stravinsky were among them; in the fine arts Jean Dubuffet, Fernand Léger, Robert Rauschenberg and Giacometti; the writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Breton and Françoise Sagan; and actors like Brigitte Bardot (whom she photographed in extraordinary colors) and Jeanne Moreau.

The Rapho agency became the perfect place for her photojournalism and personal work; She started out as one of only two women who worked for her. Her stories have been published in Vogue, Life, Paris Match, and the New York Times magazine, and she was included in the Postwar European Photography exhibition (1953) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She participated in Edward Steichen’s seminal exhibition The Family of Man, which began at MoMA in 1955 and toured 38 different countries for eight years.

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot in 1959, an early foray into color for white. Photo: Sabine Weiss

Above all, Weiss loved to photograph children with whom she had a special relationship, as the books Poussettes, Charrettes et Roulettes (2000), Intimes Convictions (1989) and Des Enfants (2000) show. She was fascinated by her ability to play, a favorite picture was Enfants sur Arbre (Children in the Tree). Shot in 1951, it shows three boys struggling to balance on a thin wintry tree; a younger boy tries to prop a metal bed frame against the spindly trunk.

Born Sabine Weber in St-Gingolph, Switzerland, she fell in love with photography at an early age, bought her first Bakelite camera with her pocket money at the age of eight and “printed” her pictures by exposing contact sheets to sunlight on her windowsill. Her first mentor was her father, a chemical engineer who, as she told me in an interview for the Independent in 1987, gave her “a very practical taste for the subject,” which “was kind of a salvation as I was always more visual.” as intellectual ”.

The Weber family moved to Geneva and Sabine took the first opportunity at the age of 15 to exchange school days with 80-year-old François-Frédéric Boissonnas for a photo apprenticeship. Boissonnas, whose family had owned a photo studio almost since the invention of the camera, taught her composition and encouraged stylistic experiments.

People dance while an accordion plays
Dancing on a Sunday, Nazaré, Portugal, 1954. Photo: Sabine Weiss

In Geneva, Sabine met members of a French-Jewish community in exile before National Socialism. When survivors returned to Paris in 1946, she also settled there. One contact introduced her to the fashion photographer Willy Maywald, whose studio assistant she became: “Today I worked under unimaginable conditions – no water and no telephone – but with him I understood the importance of natural light. Natural light as a source of emotions. “

She stayed with him for four years, using his studio to develop commercial jobs and his darkroom to develop her own work. Fashion gave her access to “le tout Paris“Including the introduction of his New Look in 1947 by Christian Dior.

In 1949 she met the American painter Hugh Weiss, who encouraged her to paint. Then, too, her fascination for line and form was evident, both in the visual framing of her pictures and in the rearrangements that could later be achieved through the use of darkroom processes.

They married in 1950 and adopted a daughter, Marion. Weiss personally and creatively recalled a happy time when “a kind of national optimism” overcame the humiliation caused by the German occupation.

That year she also began working with Armenian-Egyptian-French photographer Alban, traveling between studios in Brussels and Cairo, where light inspired her to really work with color. During this time she published a mixture of reports and travel features from all over the world in Vogue, Life, Holiday, Time and Picture Post.

In more than 60 years of photographic work, Weisss’ international reputation grew steadily. More than 40 books and exhibition catalogs document her diverse interests, from basic theater groups to artist monographs; Paris street markets and rural musician fairs; Country profiles from Bulgaria to Burkina Faso.

A woman picks up a child from a lost property office
A 1955 photo from New York. Weiss’s work included reports and travel features from all over the world. Photo: Sabine Weiss

In 2017 she donated her entire archive to the Musée de l’Ēlysée in Lausanne. In 2020 she won Kering’s Women in Motion Photography Award.

In interviewing her, I met a warm, talkative woman who was happily at home in the same studio she moved into when it was a shack with no electricity or an indoor toilet. Weiss remembered being so poor that she traded her portraits for vegetables at the local market, yet looked back gratefully and lovingly. She said it was the people she met through her photography that she liked most, “be it at street markets, in famous galleries or at Printemps”.

However, when I asked her why she thought her most frequently reproduced non-commercial image was the horse breaking its rope, she said, “This image is, for me, a portrait of loneliness. My world as a photographer has to be about loneliness. And that’s how I learned to love solitude as much as everything else. “

Hugh died in 2007. Weiss is survived by Marion.

Sabine Weiss, photographer, born June 23, 1924; died December 28, 2021

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