The photographer Sabine Weiss has been living in the same house in the 16th arrondissement of Paris for nearly seven decades. When she moved in with her husband in 1949, the water tap was located in the courtyard; today, the house is filled with books, foreign curios and treasures found at the marché aux puces, or flea markets. “I bought things to save them from destruction,” she says. “Things that would have disappeared, things with no purpose, that people would have thrown out.”
Weiss has always had an eye for the overlooked. The fruits of this preoccupation can now be viewed at two exhibitions in France. The Jeu de Paume in Tours showcases her range, from her pictures of French celebrities and street children from the 1950s – her most prolific period – to her studies of local communities in India, Bulgaria and Guadeloupe, where she went travelling in the 1980s. Les Douches La Galerie in Paris emphasises the cinematic aspect of Weiss’s work. The best example is an image she snapped in Montmartre in 1953: the composition’s multiple windows double as small screens. Within the illuminated rectangles, a pair of lovers kiss, below a sign that reads “Noces” (nuptials).
Born in Switzerland, Weiss studied in Geneva and moved to Paris in 1946 to train with the photographer Willy Maywald. In 1952, she began working for the Parisian photo agency Rapho, accumulating freelance assignments for publications like Life, Time Newsweek Holiday and Esquire. She produced fashion editorials, portraiture, reportage, and worked on advertising campaigns. She also photographed the big names of culture, both high and low, from art-world luminaries (Léger, Braque, Dubuffet, Miro, Giacometti, de Saint Phalle) to stars like Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve. “Sometimes it was high society, or homeless men in the street, or presidents,” she says. “I adapted very easily. I could sleep in a grimy cloister in Egypt with clerics, and go to a grand hotel the next week.” In 1955, her work was included in the seminal exhibition “The Family of Man” at MoMA, curated by Edward Steichen.
Today, when she reflects on her career, Weiss privileges the photographs that confront the anonymous delights and miseries of the street. She is often discussed alongside artists like Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Izis, who were part of the humanist photography movement popular in France during the 1950s, and captured a spectrum of everyday human traits, both grim and joyous. Weiss rarely made direct contact with her hardscrabble subjects (unless they were children); sometimes they didn’t even know they were being photographed. As with her flea-market trinkets, she has always sought out what others have ignored.
“Mariage gitan” (Gypsy wedding), Tarascon, 1953
A celebratory moment in an impoverished community in the Bouches-du-Rhône, a region of France Weiss would revisit (see image 5). It’s a photograph that exemplifies her humanist sympathies. Though the style has sometimes been dismissed as treacly, Weiss simply finds that “it’s important to pay attention to people,” particularly the disadvantaged.
“Je suis un cheval” (I am a horse), Spain, 1954
Of her images of children, Weiss remarks, “You have to laugh with them, and challenge them, tell them ‘I bet you can't stand on this chair’ or some such – turn things into a game.” Here, a wiry little boy shows off, as his defiant gaze makes clear. Sometimes, Weiss’s tactics could be provocative: when she suggested to Pablo Picasso’s young son Claude that he wasn’t strong enough to beat his friend in a fight, a scuffle ensued. The resulting frenetic image was published in a Swiss newspaper.
“Times Square”, New York, 1955
Weiss worked for many American publications, from Town and Country to Holiday. The New York Times magazine published two features, in the May 29th and June 26th issues, about her view of New York. “In Europe,” she wrote, “the talk about America commonly involves such adjectives as colossal, efficient, incredible, and such achievements as bridges, skyscrapers, and super highways. Yet, on my first visit to New York, I have been amazed not so much by the technological marvels – as by the people.”
“New York”, 1955
The titles of Weiss’s publications reflect the intimate nature of her work: “Intime Convictions” (1989), “See and Feel” (2007), “L’oeil Intime” (2014). Neither sentimental nor precious, she is alert to signs of vulnerability, be they deep emotional upset or dismal economic conditions; the sign in the previous photograph (“tight spot”) unequivocally spells out the man’s pain. But Weiss is not without a sense of humour – sometimes you can almost see the twinkle in her eye. Reclining on a pile of bins, this man savours his cigarette break. The stacked boxes provide the punchline: “Office Easy Chairs”.
Although Weiss is often classified as a humanist photographer because of her subject matter, Françoise Morin, the curator of the Les Douches exhibition, is more interested in her aesthetic choices. She marvels at the latent drama in her striking visual arrangements, likening them to mise en scènes. This photograph’s sense of suspended motion, with the buoyant performer captured mid-stomp, evokes a film still.
Weiss and her husband, a painter, travelled together frequently, both for work and pleasure. In the 1980s and 1990s they went to Burma, Reunion Island and Morocco. “Paintings are about imagination,” Weiss says. “Me, I photographed what I observed, simply creating a document of what I saw.” This is what she observed in Egypt in 1983: two clusters of women, walking, talking – a perfectly ordinary scene. Yet this photograph is no mere document: we spy them through a grille, as if we were looking through the viewfinder with her. Suddenly the ordinary becomes enigmatic. This is Weiss showing us where and how to look for the secrets of everyday life.
The World of Sabine Weiss Les Douches la Galerie, Paris, until July 30th. Sabine Weiss, Jeu de Paume, Château de Tours, until October 30th