Sabine Weiss: A Humanist Lens

Sabine Weiss: A Humanist Lens

“A lyrical trend, warm, fervent, and responsive to the sufferings of humanity.” This is how Jean Claude Gautrand (1932-2019), a major French photographer, curator, journalist and historian, described the School of Humanist Photography. The approach emerged in the mid-20th century out of the upheaval caused by two world wars. Its focus was, as its name suggests, the everyday, universal human experience, making it distinct from photojournalism and its concern with newsworthy events. Proponents were conscious of conveying the minutiae of human experience – details like mannerisms and customs –as well as focusing on those disadvantaged by economic hardship or prejudice. The French school, which flourished under artists like Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, was prolific and continued to curate and exhibit shows well into the 21st century. Central to this movement was Sabine Weiss (1924 – 2021). Before she passed away in 2021 at the age of 97, the Swiss-French photographer was dubbed “the last of the humanists.” Her remarkable work offers a beautiful glimpse into the joys and tribulations of Parisian life. Now, Photo Elysée, alongside artist Nathalie Boutté, presents an exhibition which pays tribute to Weiss, marking the centenary of her birth and showcasing a remarkable career.

Weiss started taking photographs on a cheap Bakelite camera, bought with her pocket money, in 1932. She said in an interview with The Guardian, “at the time, the idea of being a professional photographer was inconceivable. There were no books, no exhibitions. Maybe there were books in the States for very well-known photographers, but not in Switzerland.” Yet, Weiss went on to complete two lengthy apprenticeships, the second of which with German fashion photographer Willy Maywald. Under his guidance, she perfected her printing techniques and grasped the importance of natural light. This experience set the groundwork for the rest of her career, with the artist showing more versatility than many of her humanist counterparts. Her body of work spans not only street photography but fashion, advertising and reportage. She covered prestigious events, like Christian Dior’s first show in 1947, and, after featuring in Vogue, she began working for the leading French press agency Rapho Agency. Weiss went on to feature in Time, Life, Newsweek and Paris Match, and her expertise strengthened and diversified.

Weiss’ friend and contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson is known for popularising the idea of the ‘decisive moment’ – the instant an artist chooses to capture an image, in which the arrangement of everything in the frame is perfect. But the idea, which continues to influence lens-based artists today, was instrumental to his contemporaries, too. Weiss said: “I would like to incorporate everything into an instant, so that the essential of human condition is expressed with minimal means.” We see this in the blurred figures who dart past her lens, heading for a Metro station exit or a restaurant door. The human experience, fleeting and ephemeral, is the subject here. Despite working amidst the challenging socio-economic conditions of the post-war era, Weiss’ work is not without a sense of joie de vive. She loved photographing children. Many of her pictures, including Enfants sur Arbre (Children in a Tree) (1951)depict young people at play. It shows three young boys perched precariously atop a spindly tree. Elsewhere, three children skid down a hill on a rudimentary go-kart as a younger boy chases them. Their arms are thrown up in joyful abandon. 

This exhibition stands out from other surveys of its kind in that Photo Elysée has invited visual artist Nathalie Boutté – who creates paper reconstructions inspired by iconic photographs – to engage with Weiss’ largely unseen body of studio work. Boutté’s process is meticulous: she cuts hundreds of strips bearing texts related to the chosen image – in this case, quotes from Weiss – before assembling them to reconstruct the original. Grayscale tones create gradients, similar to pixels on a digital screen. Up close, the text is the focal point, but stepping back from the montage allows the image to be revealed. By placing Weiss in conversation with a 21st century artist, Photo Elysée makes a statement: the “last of the humanists” lives on. She will remain an enduring influence for generations to come.

Sabine Weiss x Nathalie Boutté is at Photo Elysée, Lausanne, until 12 January.

Words: Emma Jacob

Image Credits:
1. Sabine Weiss, Anna Karina Pour Korrigan, 1958. Collection Photo Elysée © Sabine Weiss / Collection Photo Elysée, Lausanne.
2. Sabine Weiss, L’homme Qui Court, Paris, 1953
3. © Sabine Weiss. Sabine Weiss, “Autoportrait”, Paris, 1953 © Sabine Weiss / Collection Photo Elysée, Lausanne.
4. Sabine Weiss, Paris, 1952. Collection Photo Elysee © Sabine Weiss / Collection Photo Elysée, Lausanne.