‘Louis Stettner: Traveling Light’
“In the late 1940s,” writes Carole Naggar, “Brassaï became a mentor to the American photographer Louis Stettner, whose work is currently exhibited at SFMOMA in his first retrospective in the United States. Born in Brooklyn in 1922 to Austrian immigrant parents, Stettner spent much of his life zigzagging between New York and Paris, and was responsible for bringing to New York’s MoMA the 1951 exhibition “Five French Photographers,” featuring a whole generation of French humanist photographers: Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Izis, and Willy Ronis. “Brassaï took me under his wing,” Stettner told a French journalist. “He was my teacher. I went to see him once a week to bring him my work, and in return he showed me his. Then we went out strolling in the streets of Paris.” Beyond bringing French photography to the American public, Stettner’s own work was distinctive for blending the social engagement of American street photography with the poetic sensibility of the French humanist tradition.
Like Saul Leiter, Stettner frequently photographed people through and around obstacles. In the case of his series of photos inside Penn Station, he shoots through the train windows, darkened with mist or soot. They act as frames within the frame as we peer into the train compartments where men and women sleep, play cards, chat, or read the papers in what feels like a secluded underwater world.
In his series of photos in the subway—made in 1946, several years after Walker Evans’s subway series (though Stettner did not know Evans’s work at the time)—Stettner used a square format and, contrary to Evans, did not hide his camera. He pretended to be fiddling with his camera, then photographed his subjects, some of whom were aware, others not, between stations, using long exposures. The subway provided him with endless sitters, offering Stettner the possibility of entering for a moment the lives of perfect strangers.
While living on the island of Ibiza, Spain, in 1956, Stettner photographed two fishermen, Pepe and Tony, at work. These photographs, part of a larger project, are taken at intimate close range—he was with them in their boat—and focused on their gestures. Still unpublished in full, the book on the two fishermen exists only in dummy form, its careful sequence demonstrating Stettner’s interest in the series more than the single image. Tony and Pepe are just two of the many workers that Stettner—perhaps inspired by the documentary photographers August Sander and Lewis Hine—photographed. There is pride in his subjects’ attitudes, but also seriousness and great weariness. No one smiles. In a video interview shown in the exhibition, Stettner describes spending time with a silent New Jersey garment worker before she finally said: “Nobody knows we exist.””
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