Sabine Weiss, Last of the ‘Humanist’ Street Photographers, Dies at 97
Sabine Weiss, whose arresting photographs of dirty-faced children, food-stall vendors and Roma dancers captured the struggles, hopes and occasional moments of humor on the streets of postwar France, died on Dec. 28 at her home in Paris. She was 97 and considered the last member of the humanist school of photography, whose ranks included Robert Doisneau, Brassaï and Willy Ronis.
Her assistant, Laure Augustins, confirmed the death.
When she started out, in the late 1940s, no one called Ms. Weiss and her cohort “humanists”; that term came later, when historians in the 1970s began to elevate their work to canonical status. But they were undoubtedly a school, united by a common interest in capturing the spontaneous events that revealed the universal dignity of everyday life.
They also all embraced advances in camera technology — smaller, portable, with faster and more reliable mechanisms — that gave them the freedom to wander around Paris shooting whatever caught their eye.
“What I shot at the time was essentially people in the street,” Ms. Weiss said in an interview for the Jeu de Paume, a cultural institution in Paris that held an exhibition of her work in 2016. “I liked that, and was drawn to it. I had to take photos of something, but never set pieces, always spontaneous.”
Her home turf were the streets and garbage-filled empty lots of a Paris just then emerging from decades of war and poverty. A boy and girl pumping water from an alley well; a horse bucking in a snow-strewn field; an aged couple burying their pet dog — moments like these, at once quotidian and profoundly moving, were her stock in trade.
The only woman among the humanists, Ms. Weiss bridled at that label, because she considered her street photography to be just one part of her oeuvre. Most of her career was spent as a fashion photographer and a photojournalist, shooting celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and musicians like Benjamin Britten.
“From the start I had to make a living from photography; it wasn’t something artistic,” Weiss told Agence France-Presse in 2014. “It was a craft, I was a craftswoman of photography.”
Despite her early inclusion in two major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art — “Postwar European Photography,” in 1953, and “The Family of Man,” in 1955, both curated by Edward Steichen — she rarely showed her personal work, one reason she remains less well-known than her fellow humanists.
That has started to change: She has been the subject of three major exhibitions in France over the last decade, and a new generation of fans has come to admire her preternatural intuition for what Henri Cartier-Bresson, an older member of the humanists, called the decisive moment — the fleeting smile, the sudden jump for joy that revealed a subject’s inner reality.
“She was a very spontaneous photographer,” Virginie Chardin, who curated two of the shows, said in a phone interview. “She was interested above all in the people.”
Sabine Weber was born on July 23, 1924, in Saint-Gingolph, Switzerland, nestled between Lake Geneva and the French border. Her father, Louis, was a chemist, and her mother, Sonia, was a homemaker.
Encouraged by her father, she took to photography early. She bought a Bakelite camera — “it was like a toy,” she said — with her own money and learned to develop her own film.
Not long after her family moved to Geneva, she dropped out of high school and in 1942 began a four-year apprenticeship with the renowned Swiss photographer Frédéric Boissonnas. Another apprenticeship, this time with the fashion photographer Willy Maywald, took her to Paris, where she helped photograph Christian Dior’s landmark “New Look” show in 1947.
She met the American painter Hugh Weiss in 1949. They married a year later, around the same time she opened her own studio on Boulevard Murat, a then-working-class neighborhood in southwest Paris. Across the street was her fellow Swiss artist and close friend Alberto Giacometti, whom she photographed frequently.
The Weisses shared the studio, which measured just 215 square feet, lacked running water and doubled as their home. Over the years, they added to it, and remained there for the rest of their lives.
The couple adopted a daughter, Marion, who survives Ms. Weiss, as do three grandchildren. Mr. Weiss died in 2007.
Just months after opening her studio, Ms. Weiss received a phone call from the photo editor at Vogue, who asked to see some of her work. When she arrived at the magazine’s offices, she found Mr. Doisneau, himself already a famous photographer; he was so impressed with her work that he recommended her to the Rapho agency, which represented most of the humanists and other leading French photographers.
Soon she had more work than she could handle.
Along with fashion magazines, she did reporting work for European newsmagazines like Picture Post, Paris Match and Die Woche. She shot for American publications as well, including Time, Life, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine, which brought her to New York in 1955 to photograph Manhattan street scenes.
Because of her pressing professional schedule, Ms. Weiss often shot her street scenes at night, walking around foggy Paris with her husband. He is the subject of one of her most famous photographs, “Man, Running” (1953) — seeing a cobblestone lane lit by a streetlight, she told him to “run, but not too far.”
It was Mr. Weiss who pushed her to show her personal work to curators, just as she often lent her critical eye to his paintings.
“They were symbiotic,” Marion Weiss said in a phone interview. “They could understand each other’s work like it was their own.”
After curators and historians began to embrace the humanist school in the 1970s, Ms. Weiss found more time, and grant money, to pursue her own interests. She traveled widely, photographing street life in Cairo and religious ceremonies in India. And when she returned home, she went back onto the Paris streets.
She stopped taking photographs in 2011. Though by then she had a digital camera and wondered at the ease with which she could capture spontaneous street scenes, she found to her dismay that times had changed: Despite (or perhaps because of) the ubiquity of cameras, strangers were wary of letting her take their picture.
Ms. Weiss in 2017 donated her entire archive, including 200,000 negatives, many of which have never been seen publicly, to the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In March, the Casa dei Tre Oci, a museum in Venice, will open another major exhibition of her work, curated by Ms. Chardin. It will then travel to Genoa, Italy, and finally to Lausanne, where, if all goes according to plan, the show will be enlarged with new photographs added from her archives.