For those of us not already acquainted with the work of Louis Faurer, the centenary of his birth is high time to get to know this “quiet” great of American photography.
In the 1950s and 60s Faurer was a successful fashion photographer, working in New York for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle, and Glamour, and as staff photographer for the visionary Fleur Cowles at Flair. He was championed by Edward Steichen, and shared studio space with Robert Frank. But this show concentrates on a single aspect of Faurer’s work: street photography and his love affair with the city, particularly Times Square, from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Louis Faurer, Deaf Mute, New York 1950
Faurer was born in Philadelphia in 1916, the son of Polish immigrants. In his memoir, Narrative of My Career, Faurer states: “My interest in photography began in 1937″ – when, aged 21, he bought his first camera – and “was greatly intensified when I was awarded first prize in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger for the photo of the week contest.”
He began taking pictures on Philadelphia’s Market Street, details drawn out of the crowd – a hand holding a flower, or a beggar’s collection box – often refracted through the glass of shop windows, or silhouetted against theatre hoardings.
Louis Faurer, Market Street, Philadelphia, 1944
Faurer left Philadelphia for New York in 1947. There he met Walker Evans, who introduced him to Alexander Liberman at Vogue, and Lilian Bassman, photographer and Art Director for Junior Bazaar, who hired him to shoot fashion. He was commissioned by Life, but quit, complaining that the work meant too much travel. Faurer was not particularly enamoured of commercial work, and many of the negatives and prints from his fashion shoots have vanished.
Instead, his passion was for capturing poignant moments in street life, and for printing. Faurer experimented with camera and developing techniques, including blurring images and double exposures, slow film speeds and strong cropping. He had a reputation for being touchy and difficult – which did not help his commercial career – but this made him a relentless perfectionist in the darkroom.
In 1969, Faurer left New York for London, Paris and Montreal, where he spent the early 70s working for Elle, Marie Claire, and Vogue Paris. The experience does not seem to have been a happy one. In his memoir, five years are summed up as: “I tried Europe.”
Back in the US, Faurer took up teaching, at Parsons, Yale, and SVA among others, and, while he was not about to become a household name, his work commanded respect from his peers. The influential American curator Walter Hopps summed it up: “With shocking suddenness in 1976 I came to believe that American photography of the moment of mid-century belonged to Louis Faurer.”
Faurer was recognised with a National Endowment for the Arts Photographer’s Fellowship Grant and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship Grant. Solo exhibitions followed (Steichen had already included him in shows at MOMA), and Faurer’s work began to be collected. His photography career came to an end following a traffic accident in 1984. Louis Faurer died in NY in 2001.
Louis Faurer, Twins, New York, 1948
This exhibition at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson emphasises Faurer’s eye for the idiosyncratic, the frail, and the overlooked. As the Fondation notes, “Deeply concerned with what he saw, [Faurer] shares his doubts with us as he chooses anonymous figures spotted amid the ordinariness of the sidewalk: figures pulled out of the ambient melancholy, the film noir, the pervasive distress that seem to have been his personal lot.”
His images are never sentimental, despite the fact that their subjects may be needy or sad. The girl looking anxiously at the man in Deaf Mute comes across not as someone the photographer wants us to feel sorry for, but as someone he wants (us) to understand. And subjects like the nerdy identical sisters in Twins are not isolated as oddities, the way Diane Arbus might have seen them: they’re just part of the crowd, who happen to have caught the photographer’s eye. Faurer’s great gift is for finding the lonely figure in any crowd, and gently making us see them too.
Louis Faurer, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, until December 18th, 2016
© Fiona Hayes 2016
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