Centre Pompidou opens a retrospective dedicated to the photographer Louis Stettner

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Centre Pompidou opens a retrospective dedicated to the photographer Louis Stettner
Brooklyn Promenade, New York, États-Unis, 1954. Collection Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. Gift of Hervé and Etty Jauffret, 2015 © Centre Pompidou/Dist. RMN-GP © Louis Stettner.

PARIS.- The Centre Pompidou is devoting a retrospective to the photographer Louis Stettner with a hundred-odd works, paying tribute to one of the last great American photographers of his generation still working today.

The exhibition highlights eight decades of a varied, powerful and lyrical body of work. A major figure of the history of photography, Stettner shows us the poetic post-war Paris, the animated New York of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and the atmospheric quality of urban scenes, where he captured people at work with extraordinary perception. Born in 1922, Louis Stettner took to photography in the Thirties. In the decades after the war, he made frequent trips between France and America.

Wishing for the Centre Pompidou to become the reference location for his work, Louis Stettner recently donated an exceptional group of hundred and four prints. Through the generosity of Hervé and Etty Jauffret, this donation is augmented with the acquisition of seven of the artist’s important vintage prints, and the extraordinary dummy of « Pepe & Tony », a 1956 book project that was never published. Featured in the exhibition, this new selection of vintage prints and the dummy make a significant addition to the Centre Pompidou’s photography collection as a whole, and its American photography collection in particular.

The exhibition in the Centre Pompidou Galerie de photographies includes famous pictures by Stettner such as Aubervilliers (1947), Brooklyn Promenade (1954) and Manège (1949), as well as many others never previously shown.

I originally planned to only spend a few days in Paris. It was late 1946. Paris was a center for the arts, for creativity. I liked it so much that I decided to stay. I liked sculpture a lot. I started out as a student of Ossip Zadkine. But I preferred photography, so when I heard about the IDHEC [Institut des hautes études cinématographiques], I registered there. To study film. They didn’t have a course in photography, but film was close to it. I must confess I was not a very good student, I spent most of my time taking photographs. I was well aware of Eugène Atget. People were still getting over the war in Paris, the city was pretty grim, people were slowly beginning to smile again. There were no cars in the streets, people were scarce.

Gradually people became joyful...Paris really became le gai Paris. You had two or three orchestras playing every night… La vie quotidienne was more obvious than in New York. New York was very businesslike. There were no cafés. In Paris, I knew that if I went to Le Dôme, I would meet people. The social life was more in the streets. People got together more than in NY. But, here or there, the photographic approach stayed the same: there is absolutely no difference between the French so-called « Photo Humanism » and the American « Street Photography ».

I am interested in the quality of the air, of the snow, of the rain…Photography is what is in front of me. Everything is life, the elements, the weather…The sun or the rain, it’s something we can’t control. I’m interested in what life has to offer. I work with that. Make something significant of it.

To take photographs in the subway was the first thing I did after the war. I went there every day. On the BMT line…It went from Coney Island to Times Square. The metro struck me as a place where you could contemplate the other human beings. Most of these people were people going to work. I was always operating in tunnels, never in daylight. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had enough contrast. Sometimes the train would stop for a long time… I looked as if I was fooling with my camera. It was a less expensive kind of Rolleiflex. A camera with which you were looking down, it was not something you would drop up to the eye, so it was less aggressive. Very often, they knew I photographed them, but they would never dare to say something, the concept of privacy was different then. Today they would. When I saw that they became conscious, I stopped. Because it was too posy, they were not themselves anymore.

I took one photograph in Penn Station and it turned so wonderfully, I thought I should go back there. It was a place where I could relate to humanity. These people were coming home from work. It was a moment when they restored themselves in a way, by being alone with themselves. It was not a negative time, it was not unpleasant. When you travel, you are surrounded by strangers. I was there with a camera. I was just another stranger. There were at ease, and I was at ease. It is not a private place; you’re accepted for being there. I could be a traveller taking pictures. I could be part of it, in a natural way.

During the summer of 1956, I went to Ibiza, Spain, to write a book, Nude and Angry Citizens… It was very hot. Ibiza was an easy place to live in. Fishing and farming were the only activities on the island. I saw the fishermen going out every day. I got attracted. I thought it would be great to see how they worked. I had always been attracted to working people. They keep us all eating! They keep us all living ! I got to know these two fishermen, Pepe and Tony ; I spent a couple of days with them. They did very well, so they thought I brought them good luck! Photographs are your children ; you want to see them out in the world, so that they function. Not to keep them for yourself. So people can relate to them. I wanted to make a book with the photographs I took there, so I made a layout with text, I took it to a publisher. He showed no interest in the subject whatsoever, so I forgot about it.

I knew Lewis Hine’s photographs on workers and respected them. I thought as a subject, it was worth continuing to explore. I discovered that the cliché of the worker as being a brute was so completely wrong. They, men and women, do have wonderful faces, they are wonderful people ! I think that political power should eventually lie with working people. They would supplant the bourgeoisie, as the bourgeoisie supplanted the aristocrats. So I felt it was important to show their value. I also think it would give them self-confidence. These photographs were connected to my political commitment at the time. Definitely. I am a Marxist, you know. I am aware of class consciousness.

During the Vietnam War, we were demonstrating to defend ideas, pacifist ideas, most of the time. I was arrested once, during a demonstration for Angela Davis. I was part of the protesters ; I was taking photographs while protesting. As I always say « put your body where your ideas are! »

I am more interested when people are relaxed, releasing tension in their bodies, than when they are rushing. It reveals the soul more. I am interested in whatever moves me as significant, profound. I have no fixed idea, I don’t intellectualize it. To be really truthful, it’s your hand that decides what is significant. As much as the brain. When I work, my hand decides. Really, it’s happening so quickly… it’s your hand that has intelligence ! Intuition. The hand…you have to have confidence in your hand. Photography imposes a certain discipline where you have to have faith. Your feelings take over and decide when to shoot.

I met Nancy by accident. In the East Village, around 1958. Everybody hung out there. I didn’t give her any direction. Just went around with her. I was working then for The Pageant magazine. I stayed with her 4 or 5 days…Jazz places, this and that. She was a beatnik. She seemed very unconcerned, so relaxed in front of the camera, like if I was not there. Being herself. Something about her attracted me. I liked her personality very much, the way she looked, her presence. I don’t think the average beatnik looked like her. She was exceptional. Her arms, her legs…She was beautiful. Very emotional. Visually she was expressing what she was feeling.

In America, there are two kinds of life styles: whether you are in a big city or in a small town. Silver Creek was a place where you could rent cottages for the weekends. Very American. Athens is a village next to the Hudson River. A small, tiny village. Catskill is close to Athens, up in the mountain. My idea was to make a portrait of these little towns, a portrait of American town life. I had a house in Athens. When I was living in New York, I would go there for the weekends, in the summer also. I knew it very well. Everything was accidental, spontaneous. There were no patterns in the way things were done. To photograph here is different : slower pace, more meditative.

Nude seems to be the basis for all arts since the Ancient Greeks. The human figure is the essential thing. It’s beautiful, it’s something worth exploring. I don’t believe in romanticism. I think you have to work with nudes in order to take pictures outdoors. You understand the human figure better.

I work intuitively. Whenever I feel…whatever moves me. I never have a preconceived idea ; I let reality guide me, my eye tells me what to do. I don’t look for certain things. It’s a gift that nobody gives. That’s my idea of photography. An anonymous gift: this is my idea of photography. To discover what is new and meaningful. I think it enriches humanity. It enriches our knowledge of the world, our interpretation and our feelings about it.

Dostoyevsky wrote: « It is probably in the forest that human beings are the happiest ». I am always happy in the forest. It’s my idea of pleasure. I have been in the Alpilles thirteen times ! I guess I was bewitched by it. I loved trying to give an interpretation of what I saw there. What is unique about the Alpilles is the light. Everything is photogenic ; the shadows are too…It’s where nature expresses best its fantasy. I think because of the mistral, trees have to be strong to survive, so they have great character. I have not been able to take good photographs of any other woods. It’s a magic place. Now they are cleaning it up, because they are afraid of fires. You can’t take pictures anymore…It’s too domestic.

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