From the pioneering Julia Margaret Cameron to Imogen Cunningham all the way to the iconic Annie Leibovitz, women photographers have left their mark on the photography medium. Truth is, it was and has remained an uphill battle for women in this male-dominated field. German photographer Evelyn Hofer, whose work is on view at the High Museum of Art through August 13, belongs to this long lineage of struggling female artists.
Despite her prolific career, Hofer has remained an “unusual figure . . . [she has] more often been appreciated by writers, painters and magazine editors than by the panjandrums of the contemporary photography world,” wrote critic Hilton Kramer in 1982. He summed it up by saying that Hofer was “the most famous unknown photographer in America,” a description that stuck.
The High exhibit, Eyes on the City, deserves credit for putting Hofer’s work back into the public eye. Co-organized with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, it is the artist’s first major museum exhibition in the United States in over 50 years.
Encompassing more than 100 vintage prints in both black and white and color, the exhibit succeeds in taking a deep dive into work that Hofer made primarily in the 1960s.
It was a fertile period for the artist, as she received successive commissions from major publishing houses for a series of photo books devoted to European and American cities namely Florence, London, New York, Washington, D.C., and Dublin, as well as a book devoted to Spain.
The exhibit follows the chronological order of her travels. At first, her work can seem austere. She favored frontal composition and had a rigorous way of framing places and buildings. Hofer insisted on not producing “pretty snapshots” but favored insightful, carefully framed images that capture the energy of the city and its lights, “the quintessence of the city,” as she wrote.
The exhibit provides a wealth of information about her work with extended captions, a display of original photo books, handwritten annotations, even drawings and long lists of places she planned to explore and photograph. This helps viewers follow Hofer’s intellectual process and to appreciate her rigorous aesthetic.
Her references were paintings of the classical Dutch and Italian Renaissance painters. “She had some periods in her life where she was just painting, but then she gave it up again,” Andreas Pauly, the executor of the Evelyn Hofer Estate, notes. “She always said her main influence was painting and not photography. You can see that clearly in the way she treats the light.”
Her photographs reflect a consistent style, but her work in Dublin stands out for the way she used the gray skies and the infamous Irish fog to imbue her portrait of the city with melancholy, as in The Quays, Dublin, (1966) or Girl with Bicycle in the Coombe, Dublin, (1966,) a poignant portrait of a young girl posing with an adult bike too big for her. According to Hofer: “It is all just right the way it is: the clouds and the sadness.”
By contrast, her New York Proclaimed (1965) makes great use of color as an emotionally expressive tool and proves she was among the early adopters to color photography. She captured the dynamic palette of the city in Coney Island Shooting Gallery, where bold primary colors on a facade are at play with each other. Her portrait of three women standing outside a Pentecostal church in Harlem is particularly arresting in the way she constructed her image around the colors of the sitters’ dresses and the geometric patterns behind them.
She worked with a tripod-mounted, cumbersome 4×5 inch view camera. It was a deliberate decision designed to slow down and work with the constraint of weight, as if slowing down would let her absorb more deeply the essence of the city she was photographing. And there is no doubt that it had an influence on the way she approached and photographed people, in search of an “inside value, some interior respect,” as she put it.
The young Black man in Queensboro Bridge, New York, (1964), one of the signature images in the exhibit, is particularly successful in expressing this sense of trust with the sitter and illustrating his relaxed pose. As art critic David Campany notes: “His kickstand is down. This is not a hurried portrait.”
A quiet image like this one is in sharp contrast with the work of celebrated contemporaries of her time, such as Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, both famous for the raw and unbridled spontaneity of their photographs taken in the street with small, hand-held cameras.
In London Perceived (1962), we sense that Hofer used her portraits to address social issues and most of her subjects were working class. Her portraiture is again very strong in The Evidence of Washington, D.C., (1966) where she photographed both the city’s Black residents, and Springtime, Washington D.C. where she captured an austere police officer seated on a motorcycle surrounded by the pink hues of a cherry tree blossom in full bloom.
The exhibit ends with a selection of her work made in Paris, where she spent 10 months in 1967 photographing for a book that was never published. In her notes, Hofer recalled the “nightmare” she endured fighting the French bureaucracy in desperate efforts to get access and permits to photograph. Eventually Hofer had to pursue other editorial avenues.
Until her death in 2009, Hofer kept reinventing herself in a constantly changing photography market. Her persistence and dedication to her art is a valuable lesson for today’s younger generation of female photographers.
Virginie Kippelen is a photographer, multimedia producer and writer specializing in editorial and documentary projects. She has contributed to ArtsATL’s Art+Design section since 2014, writing mostly about photography. And after living 25 years in the United States, she still has a French accent.