Swiss-French photographer Sabine Weiss, who chronicled social change with a unique gaze for nearly eight decades, has died aged 97 in her Paris home, her family said yesterday. Weiss was the last of the French humanist photography school of post-World War II that reimagined the evocative powers of images, which included Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Brassai.
A pioneer of what later became known as street photography, Weiss captured the condition of ordinary people in the French capital, often outdoors, in a body of work that has been shown in major retrospectives around the world. She was also in high demand as a portrait photographer of artists, including composers Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky, renowned cellist Pablo Casals and French painter Fernand Leger.
“From the start I had to make a living from photography, it wasn’t something artistic,” Weiss told AFP in an interview in 2014, adding that she started taking pictures in 1942. “It was a craft, I was a craftswoman of photography,” she said. Weiss was born in Switzerland and moved to Paris in 1946, and she later became a French citizen. Her work has featured in 160 exhibits and is shown in permanent collections of several leading museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
‘A good picture must move you’
Weiss said that she had wanted to immortalize “the snotty-nosed kids,” “the beggars” and “the little piss-takers” in her photos. “A good pictures must move you, have a good composition and be sober,” she told French daily La Croix. “People’s sensitiveness must jump out at you.”
She told the France Inter broadcaster: “The people who know me are the ones who like my view of things. I have empathy.” In the 1950s the photographer and her American husband, the painter Hugh Weiss, explored the streets of Paris, often at night, looking to capture furtive moments on film, such as a quick kiss, crowds rushing to the metro or workers on construction sites. “Back then the capital, at night, was covered in a beautiful mist,” she remembered. She loved taking pictures of children, saying “it’s great fun to play with street kids.”
Born Sabine Weber on July 23, 1924, in Saint-Gingolph on the shore of Lake Geneva, she bought her first camera at 12, and became an apprentice in a prestigious Geneva photo studio at 16. Her first job after her arrival in Paris was with the fashion photographer Willy Maywald. After she opened her own studio in 1950 in the bourgeois 16th Arrondissement of the capital, Doisneau brought her onto the team of the iconic fashion magazine Vogue and into the Rapho photo agency.
She met and photographed many of the celebrities of the time, travelled extensively, and made a living out of work in the fashion, advertising, architecture and performance industries. Apart from Vogue, her media clients included Newsweek, Time, Life, Esquire and Paris Match. “I’ve done everything in photography,” she told AFP in 2020. “I went into morgues and into factories, I took pictures of rich people and I took pictures of fashion,” she said. “But what remains are the pictures I took for myself, in stolen moments.”
In 2017, Weiss donated 200,000 negatives and 7,000 contact sheets to the Elysee museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Renowned for her prowess with black-and-white photography, she was nonetheless pleased with the arrival of digital cameras, saying they brought “amazing” progress in sharpness and lens quality. But she also observed that “people don’t really take pictures of the world around them anymore, instead they take pictures of themselves.”- AFP