You know how it is when you see someone’s creative product and you think “Oh, I want to be that guy when I grow up!” Having looked at a LOT of documentary photographs in the past decades, I’ll be doggoned if I know how I’ve missed Louis Stettner, but he’s the guy I want to be when I grow up – at least as a photographer. There is a focused retrospective of his work in this late summer season at Beaubourg (the Centre Pompidou) in Paris. As too often happens, I stumbled upon it in my usual rounds of the major museums this year. Stettner was born in 1922 and still photographs today (with a large format camera, for heaven’s sake) – as well as doing a whole lot of other creative and life-affirming things.
Stettner gave a hundred of his prints to the Pompidou Center after the Center had collected thirty of them – and the staff has since added to that remarkable archive. This was the seed of this summer’s exhibit.
So why do I think Stettner is so wonderful? (Yes, I do teach my students not to say “I think,” but rather just assert the TRUTH of their perception.) First, he spent his life wandering from New York to Paris and back again. Good taste in cities. He was one of those soldiers who wandered to Paris after demobilization and just stayed for awhile. Secondly, he celebrates people, and humanity, in all its variations, in the way he captures humans as they sculpt themselves in public and private. Third, he made a big old point of asserting the beauty and competence of laborers – workers – and says unabashedly that he is a Marxist in that he gets that class thing. Fourth, he has a visual sense of humor. Fifth, his compositions are exciting, classic, and just plain spot on. Sixth, he captured both the despair and the dogged hope of the postwar era both in Paris and in New York. Seventh, he understood the aesthetic glory of humans interacting with their massive urban creations — and he did not shrink or trivialize the humans. And seventh, he went to Maine and small town New York State and photographed there.
“To be really truthful,” the curator quotes Stettner, “it’s your hand that decides what is significant. As much as the brain. When I work, my hand decides. Really, it’s happening so quickly…it’s your hand that has intelligence! Intuition.” I would have thought that was mumbo-jumbo until I started doing street photography in an intensive and intentional way. As a member of the public, I tend to be cautious and accommodating, anxious not to be noticed. Once I get the camera in hand, though I still want to go unnoticed, I become a bit aggressive, predatory, greedy, really, for the scenes I see. I don’t say this to suggest that’s who Stettner is, but rather to say that the act of photographing, the driving desire to capture a scene, can override our customary relationships to the phenomena of everyday life. Stettner developed that drive and whether his brain or his hand make the photos happen, the moments he has captured make it clear that he is always watching, always waiting, always immersed in the changing scene. It takes just one crucial moment, maybe a slight movement of the body or hand, to capture the woman’s suspicious, appraising face between the column and the iron support, below.
Stettner also sees context, as do the best artists and historians. The subject lives in a context, in a particular part of the world, at least at that moment. I gasped when I saw the photo of the man at the café with snow on his hat. How simple that is, and how lovely. The snow would not last long in that form, and Stettner saw and captured it.
Stettner’s favorite subjects were probably the workers that he studied and celebrated, Penn Station (the old one, presumably), and Paris as he was discovering it after the war. Oh heck – I could be wrong – he probably loved the big trees the best. His range is stunning, yet his oeuvre is somehow united by a lovely subtlety of lighting, a compositional genius, and compassion. Even these women, now so painfully reminiscent of what we put ourselves through, and into, in the 1970s, are depicted with sympathy for their utter and bitter bewilderment — Texans lost in the city.