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The Last Humanist

Sabine Weiss’s photographs brought style and serendipity to the streets of Paris and beyond.

By Violaine Boutet de Monvel

Sabine Weiss, Place de la Concorde, Paris, 1953
© the artist/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GRP

On June 6, 1944, the one hundred fifty-six thousand soldiers from the Allied forces who landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, under heavy Nazi fire, each carried a three-day supply of compact, lightweight food. The U.S. troops’ rations included chewing gum from the American brand Wrigley, which had reserved its entire production for GIs fighting overseas during the Second World War. As they progressed on the western front (and more supplies were sent their way), D-Day survivors offered extra gum to the children greeting and soliciting them for leftovers, French people having endured years of severe food shortages due to German occupation. This friendly gesture might not be the kind of capital-H History recorded in books, but the story has nonetheless passed from one generation to the next: the Allies did not just liberate the country, Americans also brought candy. Courtland E. Parfet, a former GI who took part in the Normandy landings, eventually returned to France in 1952 to create Hollywood, his own brand of gum sticks, which still exists to this day.

Sabine Weiss, Enfant, Paris, 1952
© the artist/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GRP

The same year, the Swiss-born, Paris-based photographer Sabine Weiss captured a French boy relishing one of these sticky treats through a sequence of three black-and-white photographs. Each titled Enfant, Paris (1952), they portray the child with an ear-to-ear grin, mischievously chewing gum and rubbing his little hands with satisfaction. Taken while Weiss was strolling around the capital with a medium-format Rolleiflex camera, these candid pictures are currently exhibited in Les villes, la rue, l’autre (The cities, the street, the other) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which gathers about eighty vintage and, for the most part, previously unseen photographs from Weiss’s own archives. (The ninety-four-year-old recently donated some of them to the Pompidou; a catalogue coedited with Éditions Xavier Barral was also published on the occasion, with reproductions of over one hundred pictures.) The overall ensemble extends from 1946, when she moved to Paris from Switzerland to assist the renowned German fashion photographer Willy Maywald, to 1962, at which point she left her personal work aside, taking up commissions for Vogue, the New York Times, Life, Paris Match, Esquire, and others.

Sabine Weiss, Dun sur-Auron, 1950
© the artist/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GRP

Born in 1924, Weiss is the last living representative of humanist photography, a typically French trend related in style to the serendipities of the street—like that child chewing his gum. Far from documenting newsworthy events, let alone historical milestones, humanists shifted their focus onto everyday situations and people in candid, often poetic compositions, which touched upon the misery and optimism that characterized postwar France. In 1952, Weiss had already embarked on a career as an independent photographer when she met Robert Doisneau by chance in the Parisian offices of Vogue. Impressed by her work, he recommended her to the Rapho agency. She joined it the following year and her career immediately took off with landmark exhibitions: some of her photographs were included in Postwar European Photography (1953) and The Family of Man (1955), both curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, and she had her first solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954.

Sabine Weiss, New York, 1955
© the artist/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GRP

The vast majority of Weiss’s personal work from the postwar period, however, ended up in boxes in her Parisian studio, and as a result her early humanist photographs have yet to be thoroughly studied and exhibited. Les villes, la rue, l’autre chiefly highlights Weiss’s certain taste for evanescent silhouettes or reflections through the rain, mist, snow, and night. While her pictures taken in Paris constitute more than half of the show, they would capture a rather dim City of Light if it weren’t for the fleeting yet palpable joie de vivre among its inhabitants, ranging from homeless people and street children to fishermen, storekeepers, and even horse-racing gamblers. Between 1955 and 1962, Weiss also traveled numerous times to New York, where everything that she couldn’t find in Paris would catch her attention—a father devouring cotton candy next to his son after a circus spectacle, the neon lights of giant billboards piercing through the dark in Times Square—in other words, the dynamism and apparent prosperity of the restless metropolis.

Sabine Weiss, Paris, 1955
© the artist/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GRP

For all the pleasure the images afford, what this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue lack are sharper perspectives by which to approach Weiss’s humanist aesthetics. By reducing the photographs on display to vaguely formal or simply geographical considerations, with basic introductory titles such as Villes de brume et de lumière (Cities of mist and light) or just the names of said cities, the presentation somewhat neglects the fundamentals: the profoundly humane quality of these works and their sociopolitical charge. Still, the best may be yet to come. Last year, Weiss gave the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, close to her Swiss birthplace, her entire archives, which will enter the museum’s collection by 2021. Hopefully exploring them will not only uncover other long-lost gems from her past, but also offer much-needed insights into her early personal practice and allow us, as she notes in the foreword of her recent catalogue, “to see the simplest details that express everything and bring out the essential.”

Violaine Boutet de Monvel is an art critic and translator living in Paris. All translations are the author’s own.

Sabine Weiss: Les villes, la rue, l’autre is on view at Centre Pompidou, Paris, through October 15, 2018.

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