Photographer Sabine Weiss, who died at the age of 97, established her considerable reputation within the French “humanist” school of black and white photography, which aimed to capture the universal human experience through images. of daily street life. Images like that of a horse kicking his heel, strapped to a snow-covered wasteland by the Paris flea market at the Porte de Vanves, or of a child illuminated only by a sparkler, are seen on a pedestal. ‘equality with those created by his friends and close to contemporaries Willy Ronis, Brassaï, Izis Bidermanas and Robert Doisneau, the latter of whom introduced him to his photo agency, Rapho, in 1952. However, throughout his long career, Weiss has worked through the medium, notably in advertising, travel and journalism.
She opened her studio on Boulevard Murat in Paris in 1950, facing another Swiss artist living in the city, Alberto Giacometti. Weiss always insisted that she was a craftswoman rather than an artist. First of all because, she says: “From the start, I had to make a living from photography. It was never just about art. However, she showed fine art even in advertising. His images of products such as cognac and perfume explored themes of evanescence and flight: perfume vaporizes from a well; a centaur flees the flames of flaming brandy.
Weiss also documented avant-garde creations, many of which became his friends. In music, they included Benjamin Britten, Stan Getz and Igor Stravinsky; in the fine arts, Jean Dubuffet, Fernand Léger, Robert Rauschenberg and Giacometti; the writers F Scott Fitzgerald, André Breton and Françoise Sagan; and actors such as Brigitte Bardot (whom she has photographed in exceptional colors) and Jeanne Moreau.
The Rapho agency has become the perfect outlet for his photojournalism and his personal work; she started out as one of only two women working for them. 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 (1953) exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She took part in Edward Steichen’s groundbreaking exhibition The Family of Man, which began at MoMA in 1955 and toured for eight years in 38 different countries.
Above all, Weiss loved to photograph children, with whom she had a special relationship, as shown in the books Poussettes, Charrettes et Roulettes (2000), Intimes Convictions (1989) and Des Enfants (2000). Their ability to play fascinates her, a favorite image being Children on Tree. Filmed in 1951, it depicts three boys struggling to balance themselves atop a thin winter tree; a younger boy tries to prop a metal bed against the slender trunk.
Born Sabine Weber in St-Gingolph, Switzerland, she fell in love with photography early on, buying her first Bakelite camera with her pocket money at the age of eight, and “printing” her images by displaying pictures. planks contact with the sun on the windowsill. Her first mentor was her father, a chemical engineer, who gave her, she told me in an interview for the Independent in 1987, “a very practical taste for the subject”, which was “something saving because I was always more visual. than intellectual ”.
The Weber family moved to Geneva and, at the age of 15, Sabine seized for the first time the opportunity to exchange school for an apprenticeship in photography with François-Frédéric Boissonnas, 80 years old. Boissonnas, whose family had owned a photo studio almost since the invention of the camera, taught him composition and encouraged stylistic experimentation.
In Geneva, Sabine meets the members of a French Jewish community in exile from Nazism. When the survivors returned to Paris in 1946, she also settled there. A contact introduced her to fashion photographer Willy Maywald, for whom she became a studio assistant: “I worked in unimaginable conditions today – no water or phone – but with him I understood the importance of natural light. Natural light as a source of emotion.
She stayed with him for four years, using his studio to design commercial work and his darkroom to start developing her own work. Fashion gave him access to “all of Paris”, Including the launch in 1947 by Christian Dior of his New Look.
In 1949, she met the American painter Hugh Weiss, who encouraged her to use color. Then, too, his fascination with line and form emerged, both in the visual framing of his images and in the rearrangements that could be achieved subsequently with the application of darkroom processes.
They married in 1950 and adopted a daughter, Marion. Weiss recalled it as a happy, personal and creative time when “a kind of national optimism” overcame the humiliation caused by the German occupation.
That year, she also started working with Armenian-Egyptian-French photographer Alban, traveling between studios in Brussels and Cairo, where the light inspired her to properly start working in color. During this time, she published a mix of reporting and travel reports from around the world in Vogue, Life, Holiday, Time and Picture Post.
During more than 60 additional years of photographic work, Weiss’ international reputation has steadily grown. Over 40 exhibition books and catalogs document his diverse interests, from local theater companies to artist monographs; Parisian markets and fairs for rural musicians; Country Profiles from Bulgaria to Burkina Faso.
In 2017, she donated all of her archives to the Ēlysée Museum in Lausanne. In 2020, she won the Women in Motion photography award from Kering.
When I interviewed her, I met a warm and talkative woman, happy at home in the same studio she had moved into when it was a slum with no electricity or an indoor toilet. Remembering how so poor she was that she traded her portraits for vegetables at the local market, Weiss always looked back with gratitude and affection. She says it’s the people she has met through her photography that appeals to her the most, “whether it’s in the street markets, in famous galleries, or while working in Printemps.”
Yet when I asked her why she thought her most reproduced non-commercial image was of the horse breaking free from its tether, she replied, “This one, to me, is a portrait of loneliness. My world, as a photographer, must be devoted to solitude. And that’s how I learned to love solitude like everything else.
Hugh died in 2007. Weiss is survived by Marion.