Street photography pioneer Sabine Weiss, who chronicled social change with unique eyes for eight decades, dies at 97

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PARIS: Franco-Swiss photographer Sabine Weiss, who chronicled social change with a unique eye for nearly eight decades, has died at the age of 97 at her Paris home, her family announced on Wednesday.

Weiss was the last of the post-World War II French school of humanist photography that reinvented the evocative powers of images, which included Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Brassai.

A pioneer of what would later be called street photography, Weiss captured the condition of ordinary people in the French capital, often outdoors, in a body of work that has been featured in major retrospectives across the world.

She was also in high demand as a portrait photographer of artists such as composers Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky, 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 said in an interview with AFP in 2014. “It was a profession, I was a craftsman of photography,” she said.

Weiss was born in Switzerland and moved to Paris in 1946 where she became a French citizen almost half a century later, in 1995.

His work has been the subject of 160 exhibitions and is featured in the permanent collections of several major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as the Center Pompidou in Paris.

“I detected in her not only compassion, but also a tenderness and a gentleness that men did not have,” French photographer and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon told AFP on Wednesday.

Weiss said she wanted to immortalize “snotty-nosed kids,” “beggars,” and “little pissers” in her photos.

“It never occurred to me that what I was doing was humanist photography,” she told French La Croix.

“A good image should move you, have good composition and be understated,” she said. “People’s sensitivity must jump out at you.”

In the 1950s, the photographer and her American husband, the painter Hugh Weiss, walked the streets of Paris, often at night, seeking to capture on film fleeting moments, such as a quick kiss, the crowd rushing towards the metro or workers on construction sites.

“At the time, the capital, at night, was covered in a beautiful mist,” she recalls.

She enjoyed taking pictures of children, saying “it’s great fun playing with street kids”.

Born Sabine Weber on July 23, 1924 in Saint-Gingolph on the shores of Lake Geneva, she bought her first camera at the age of 12, and became an apprentice in a prestigious Geneva photo studio at the age of 16.

Her first job after arriving in Paris was with fashion photographer Willy Maywald.

After opening her own studio in 1950 in the bourgeois 16th arrondissement of the capital, she began working for the iconic fashion magazine
vogue and the Rapho photo agency.

She met and photographed many celebrities of the time, traveled extensively and earned her living working in fashion, advertising, architecture and entertainment.

Apart from
voguehis media clients included Newsweek, Time, Life, Esquire and Paris Match.

“I did everything in photography,” she told AFP in 2020.

“I’ve been to morgues and factories, photographed rich people, and photographed fashion,” she said.

“But what remains are the photos I took for me, in stolen moments.”

In 2017, Weiss donated 200,000 negatives and 7,000 contact sheets to the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Renowned for her prowess in black and white photography, she nevertheless welcomed the arrival of digital cameras, if not the advent of the selfie.

“People don’t really take pictures of the world around them anymore, but they take pictures of themselves,” she told AFP.

“Tell people to take pictures… of what’s around them. Tell them that!”

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