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Louis Faurer

American, 1916 - 2001

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For nearly fifty years, Louis Faurer photographed life on the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities, creating images that are closer to poetry than to journalism. Instead of seeking out events, he observed daily life with clarity, tenderness, wit, and empathy--striving to capture the grittiness, humanity, and bustling energy of urban life. Photography dealer Deborah Bell said that Faurer "was not a chronicler, but wanted to connect people to states of mind."


Born in 1916 to immigrant parents from the Russian/Polish border, Louis Faurer's childhood, in a South Philadelphia neighborhood of mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, was not easy. "There were problems of survival," he once said. After graduating from the South Philadelphia High School for Boys in 1934, he spent a few summers as caricature artist in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Inscriptions of all sorts fascinated him, and he began studying at Philadelphia's School of Commercial Art and Lettering in 1937. He also worked freelance--painting advertising signs and lettering posters.

That same year, Faurer purchased his first camera, a used 35mm Kodak Vollenda, from his friend Ben Somoroff. Shortly thereafter, he won a prize in a weekly photo contest of the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger. "I suppose when that happened," he said, "I was convinced, positively, concerning my future course."

Somoroff, who was studying graphic design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), introduced Faurer to a number of photography students at the school, many of whom became his lifelong friends and professional collaborators. Unlike his friends, however, Faurer never attended classes in photography, except for a brief course he took in the military (from 1941-1945, he was a civilian photographer for U.S. Army Signal Corps, Philadelphia).

New York City

In the late 1940s, Faurer and several of his colleagues from Philadelphia opened studios in New York. Like many photographers of his generation, Faurer sought employment working for magazines, but unlike his photojournalist peers, who pursued careers at such publications as Life magazine, he gravitated toward fashion photography. In 1947, Lillian Bassman, the first art director of the short-lived Junior Bazaar (later incorporated into Harper's Bazaar), invited him to join the magazine's staff. The new magazine also hired Robert Frank, a recent immigrant from Switzerland, and the two immediately struck up a friendship that would last for fifty years. About their work, Faurer commented, "We influenced each other, without any tension, with total acceptance. We never spoke about the images. . . .We never criticized each other. We influenced each other without jealousy and without resentment."

Between 1946 and 1951, Faurer built his professional career while continuing to work intensely on his personal photography. He walked the city at all hours, knew it well, and found endless subjects to photograph. With sensitivity, sympathy, and originality, he chronicled the New York urban environment and its inhabitants. The trip from Philadelphia to New York was the most important journey he ever made. "New York," wrote curator Walter Hopps, was "where he stayed, and where his vision encompassed the all of it, both ordinary and odd."

Faurer was a key member of the New York School of street photographers active from the 1930s to the 1950s. A loosely defined group that included Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and William Klein, the New York School chose city life as its subject, preferred 35mm cameras, and rejected traditional documentary styles. As one historian stated, they "fostered an indisputably American aesthetic--reckless, vulgar, just shy of anarchic." By the early fifties, Faurer had been using reflections, double exposures, and sandwiched negatives for more than a decade to convey the complexities he perceived in city life.

Fashion Photography

During the 1950s, he began to focus more on his professional assignments than on his own personal street photography, working steadily for magazines such as Glamour, Charm, and Seventeen. A meeting with famed documentary photographer Walker Evans, who was working at Fortune magazine at the time, resulted in Evans writing a letter of recommendation on Faurer's behalf to the art director of Vogue. From the early 1960s until he left for Europe in 1968, Vogue and Mademoiselle gave him regular assignments.

Faurer created most of his fashion photographs in the studio in the 1950s and 1960s. The best of the studio assignments brought out his wonderful sense of humor. Iris Bianchi, who modeled for him in the 1960s, remembers him most as a gentleman who loved women and was capable of doing something ridiculous in order to relax those on the set. Once, he wore a colander on his head as he photographed her, just to make her laugh.

Portraits for Magazines

In addition to fashion photography, portraits were among the strongest pictures Faurer made on assignment, such as those of columnist and commentator Walter Winchell, singers Edie Gormé and Steve Lawrence, and playwright William Inge. In 1960, Faurer went to Hollywood, where he was set photographer for the movies Five Finger Exercise and Walk on the Wild Side.

Occasionally, he made a picture for himself while on assignment for a magazine. He remembered working for Mademoiselle, shooting fashion models at the opening of the film Cleopatra in 1963. On the scene were limousines and thousands of people. "Then I looked over . . . and there were four young people, and I had to walk over. They were so friendly; the background was Broadway. . . . I knew it was a good image, one of only a few that I did during that period." The photograph was titled Transvestites, Opening of "Cleopatra" at Palace Theater, New York, N.Y..

Paris and Beyond

In 1968, Faurer moved to London and then to Paris to escape trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and conflict with his wife. He returned to street photography in Paris, but his photographs from this period lack the clarity of vision that marks his work from the 1930s through the early 1950s. When he returned from Europe in 1974, he tried to resume photographing the streets of New York, but both he and the city had changed. In the 1940s, no one minded being photographed; thirty years later, people were suspicious and wary.

One major change, however, delighted Faurer upon his return from Europe: in the eyes of the public and the art world alike, "The photographer had become an artist!" In 1977-78 he received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council for the Arts, and in 1979 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. These grants allowed him to continue photographing, and they assisted him in getting his print and negative archives in order and safely stored.

In the fall of 1984, as he was exiting a bus, Faurer was struck by a car. This serious injury effectively ended his career as a photographer. He died on March 2, 2001, in New York City at the age of 84.

Louis Faurer: A Photographic Retrospective, 2003

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