To Value What is in Front of Us

Louis Stettner, Fundación MAPFRE, 2023

Essay commissioned for the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition Louis Stettner, Fundación MAPFRE, Spain.

The publication is in Spanish and Catalan. Here is the text in English:


To value what is in front of us. On the photography of Louis Stettner. 

David Campany


An image is capable of being like life at its very best –

moving us deeply without our knowing fully why.

Louis Stettner

Photographs, particularly those of the kind made by Louis Stettner, show what they cannot explain. The world’s appearance – captured and organised as a picture– is preserved, factual yet poetic and elusive. Faces encountered by chance on the subway. Hats on heads thinking thoughts we shall never know, and which the photographer could not have known either.  A street corner with memory longer than ours, and much more obscure. In a window display from 1951, a black cat looking mysterious and quite contemporary, as black cats in photographs always seem to do.  Café tables, awaiting or recovering from coffees and conversations. A worker’s arm, taut and purposeful. Newspapers brimming with old urgencies. Figures standing, walking or running between the life before and the life after. A ray of light. A crashing wave. We can marvel at Stettner’s spontaneous and empathetic artistry, making pictures out of the almost nothing of everyday life, turning non-moments into something momentous. But photographs have a way of covering their tracks, of cutting themselves free from the life stories from which they came, but which we will never really know: the stories of those people and things photographed, and the photographer’s own story too. Story, or narrative, is what is sacrificed in the making of a still photograph. It is not a loss. What we gain is our own occasion to respond, to fill in the missing pieces for ourselves, or to enjoy what is missing.

If would be fair to say that Louis Stettner’s photographs have, thus far, achieved more recognition than he did. Many of his images are well known but his name is not, at least not to a wider public, despite recent efforts to redress this. In our present era, in which name recognition and personality are what oil the market of culture, the relative obscurity of Stettner could be seen as refreshing, even subversive. But it must be said that for audiences who have grown used to understanding art through its maker, it is also a little perplexing.

In truth, Louis Stettner was not an altogether obscure or isolated figure, although there were many moments when felt he was. He was extremely connected, accumulating across the many years of his creative life a great network of friendships and acquaintances, as well as a few notable enemies, in the worlds of commercial and artistic photography centred around New York and Paris. On top of this network, there is another kind of connection, broad but harder to define, that was entirely to do with the qualities and character of the photographs that Stettner made. His visual sensibility was so varied, so protean that it overlapped with just about every other photographer of his era who worked as he did, in the mode of lyric observation of daily life.  One could make an exhibition pairing his pictures with similar works by a wide range of great figures, among them Roy DeCarava, Willy Ronis, Louis Draper, Aaron Siskind, Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Morris Engel, Edouard Boubat, Shawn Walker, Jerome Liebling, André Kertész, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Beuford Smith, Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau, Sid Grossman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Bill Brandt, Izis, Louis Faurer, William Klein, Weegee, and Ruth Orkin. There is something of Stettner’s work in theirs, and theirs in his.  My list is long, but it could be much longer. If we were to draw a Venn diagram of the styles of the great observational photographers of the last century, we would find Stettner at the point where they all intersect.

The variety of his images was not the result of scattered imitation, either conscious or unconscious. (It is actually very difficult to make convincing photographs through imitation). Neither was it to do with a lack of artistic direction.  No, I think the cause was Stettner’s capacious disposition towards the world, combined with a wide and generous sense of how that world as he experienced and understood it could become pictures. Surveying the breadth of his photographic oeuvre, as we can in this publication and exhibition, we get the impression he was a person of wide visual appetite, with great feeling for humans and their circumstances, and deep affection simply for the appearance things – for the way they looked to his eye; for the way they looked in photographs. For him, photography seems to have been the best and most flexible means of responding to the world, with care but without fuss. No singular vision imposed itself upon him as a unitary way of picturing. His images are always ‘strong’, as they used to say, formally rigorous and resonant, but they resist overt signature style.

Artistically, Stettner came of age in the 1940s and 50s, the era of high modernism across the arts, which demanded not only that each artform stay true to what was presumed it did best, but that each and every artist do the same, carving out a recognizable style and artistic territory that was theirs, and theirs alone. Stettner was bound to fall foul of this.  It is true that reactive, spontaneous ‘street photography’ did hold a special if minor place within modernism, since it was regarded as a genre entirely specific to the medium (unlike the landscape, the still life and the portrait, that were inherited from older pictorial arts). But, in being modelled on applied reportage, street photography had inherent impurities that made the artistic institutions somewhat wary of it. High/low, commercial/artistic. For all but finely attuned viewers, locating exactly where the ‘art’ was in such images was perplexing. Only the most distinctive and clearly authored bodies of street photography stood a chance of acceptance back then.

Another part of the baggage of high modernism was its suspicion of visual artists who did many different things, but particularly writing.  The cult of a ‘purely visual’ and intuitive art operating in some supposedly transcendent realm beyond language ran very deep, and it still does. Even so, from its origins photography grew both commercially and artistically in close proximity to writing, not least because the two worked so well together on the printed page, where most photographers saw and understood their work. Of all the arts, photography has been unusually blessed with good writers, from William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s, to Brassaï, Wright Morris, Inge Morath, and those who emerged with conceptualism – Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and Victor Burgin among them.  In general, however, the art world has been circumspect about this. After all, canons are formed when critics and curators write on behalf of artists. An artist writing for themself, or even on behalf of other artists can seem a disturbing impertinence, even today.  It is ironic that the two great guardians of mid-century modern photography were themselves photographer-writers: Edward Steichen, head of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and John Szarkowski, Steichen’s successor. They, above all others, were the powerful gatekeepers of serious photography, the formers of the ‘canon’. Stettner, a deeply anti-authoritarian and anti-canonical photographer-writer was never going to be fully appreciated by either of them.[i]

Very often what happens to photographer-writers who draw attention to the work of others is that they get overlooked. Nobody writes about them. Stettner wrote about many photographers whose work had some affinity with his own, and many whose work did not.  This was mainly in the 1970s when he a had monthly column, first titled ‘Speaking Out’ and then ‘A Humanist View’, in Camera 35 magazine. He wrote with passion and conviction in support of what he thought was great, and in criticism of photographers that the emerging orthodoxy thought were great. Years later, he accepted his column was “not sober, carefully measured opinions”; it was “more in the nature of an impetuous diatribe, a lusty speaking out.” He also admitted to having mistakenly seen the photographic “establishment” as a monolithic block, when really it was much more complex than that.  As with many artist-writers, although Stettner was discussing the work of others, he was at the same time settling scores, while setting out his own credo and canon, sometimes a little too forcefully.[ii] In this sense his writings were not unlike his photographs – spontaneous, of the moment, impassioned and to be thought about later.

There are many more reasons why the understanding of Stettner has been somewhat diffuse and his artistic achievement a little difficult to categorise, but they are all admirable in their own ways. He was also a sculptor and a painter. He was also a playwright and a poet. He had been a magazine and book editor. He was politically outspoken. The breadth of activities that make for an enjoyably creative and engaged life are usually the very things that complicate any simple assessment of it. Inevitably, there were moments when this was a source of frustration for Stettner. After all, if it comes at the right time, recognition can open doors to new opportunities, doors that very often will not open otherwise. On the whole though, Stettner was too busy living his life to get overly caught up in reputation management. That has been a task left largely to others, and to posterity.

Thinking back to my earliest encounters with his work, I do not recall Louis Stettner’s name sticking in my head until I realised that I had kept coming across his images in different places. I would take note of certain compelling photographs, only to discover they were often by Stettner.  I then looked around to see if he had made a book, like so many of the other great photographers who matured in the post-war decades. For an image maker so widely published in magazines and journals, it was a surprise to discover there were no Stettner books until 1979. Nothing like Robert Frank’s The Americans 1958/9, or William Klein’s New York 1956, and nothing in the manner of the many post-war photobooks by the French photographers he admired and often counted as friends. This meant that for most of Stettner’s working life there was no central place to see the range of his work; no ‘name’ under which his photographs be could gathered and organised, as they are here.

It was in 1979 that he published a book of his pictures of manual workers, Sur Le Tas. In many ways it was his most politically explicit project, a commitment to showing a world of tough work and toughened workers. These were becoming unfashionable subjects among photographers and the mass media, which seemed to be shifting attention away from production and labour, towards the arenas of leisure and consumption. To photograph workers was an act of resistance and also homage. “They produce everything around us,” wrote Stettner,

“…yet they are at the bottom of the ladder. Politically they have little power; economically, they are underpaid if not exploited. It seems as if there is very little social justice as far as workers are concerned. Capitalism struck me as very good for capitalists, but much less so for others. I have always felt there is a great deal of truth in Marxism that mankind was never meant to be eternally locked into one economic system. Slavery and feudalism, after all, have become obsolete. Every time I take an airplane, an unbelievable intricate mechanism speeding along at 600 miles an hour, I am astounded that the same amazing creativity and intelligence cannot also be applied to human relationships, to create a system based on human need as opposed to human greed.”[iii]

The primary English translation of ‘Sur Le Tas’ would be ‘On the Job’, but ‘On the Go’ and ‘On the Spot’ would also cover it, taking the emphasis slightly towards the photographer, who must improvise and react as he goes. Indeed, Stettner’s project also points towards one of the central issues in photography: the equivocal status of the photographer as labourer. Certainly, photography can be very hard work, but it can also be no work at all (the earliest metaphors for the medium—“pencil of nature,” “mirror with a memory”—emphasized ease and erased any sense of labour, or even intention). Any photographer who documents a factory production line will be aware of how different their own labour is, and how differently they fit into the economy.

Photographing manual work also raises complex ethical questions. Stettner was moved to show these workers—in the USA, England, France and the Soviet Union—as noble and dignified, against the increasingly common depiction of them as “coarse, ignorant and insensitive” as he put it. What seems most striking today about these worker portraits is how varied they are. Again, one can see parallels with other photographers, notably Lewis Hine, and W. Eugene Smith.  There is no standard approach, no fixed typology (of the kind made by August Sander in interwar Germany, or Irving Penn in 1950, for example), no attempt to find a single visual strategy. Each worker is approached and photographed as an individual, and as a distinct pictorial challenge. There are no massed ranks of generic de-humanised workers, but there is little overt sense of collectivism either.

It is clear that across the decades, Stettner preferred to picture solitary individuals, picking them out from their social settings with his camera framing and timing. When there are two or more figures, each seems to be somewhat alone. Even protesters striking against working conditions are isolated by Stettner from the collective crowd. Not always, but often. It is not uncommon for photographers to choose subjects and to photograph them in ways that mirror or express their own internal sense of themselves and their place in the world. Indeed, it is very difficult to avoid this. Stettner was certainly no doctrinaire Marxist, and neither was he some bourgeois flâneur of the urban scene, but there is a tension in his work between the two, as there is for most left-leaning photographers. What is politically committed photography? There are no clear-cut answers, and the question is made more sensitive because the kinds of people that are attracted to becoming photographers are often empathetic outsiders, loners, even social misfits resistant to putting their camera and observation at the service of collective action. For them, the camera is both a passport to the world and a psychological shield from it. The lens and viewfinder are portals of connection but also protecting screens.

Stettner had been a member of The Photo League, the staunchly left-wing New York collective that met regularly to discuss the intersection of photography and politics, without ever coming to any programmatic position.  Even when members of the League espoused communist views (bringing the organisation under the scrutiny of the US government’s anti-communist witch hunts) it was rarely possible to see those views explicitly in their images, or in the photographers’ ways of fitting into the world.[iv] As Harold Rosenberg put it in 1948, artists on the left are, more often than not “a herd of independent minds,” committed in principle to collective action but not in practice, photographers often least of all.[v]

Stettner had photographed those workers between 1972 and 1976, making Sur Le Tas his only ‘contemporary’ book when it was published in 1979. All his subsequent books, of which there was a handful beginning in the late 1980s and across the 1990s, were retrospective, looking at images made many years earlier. It is always affirming to see one’s work published, particularly in book form, but retrospective books tend to freeze public perceptions. Stettner was still pushing forward artistically in the 1990s, but his books presented him as something of a ‘figure from the past’.

In light of all this, the book Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets, published in 1999, is remarkable and fascinating. Louis Stettner was by then 77 years of age. He was ready to write and edit on his own terms an account of his cultural and artistic life in photography. He arranged the material in ten thematic, non-chronological chapters which he called ‘Promenades’, suggesting a life spent wandering through time, and also a wandering backward through his archive, to try and make sense of it all. Along with the images there are excerpts from his fiction writing and his plays, memories, anecdotes, defences and manifestos. His reflections on turning to photography seriously after serving in the Second World War are profoundly moving. They are also a touching insight into how the experience of war alerts us to the immense value and poetic charge of the smallest details of life. “I worked in la vie quotidienne with its so-called humdrum joys and problems. Everyday life, what was immediately happening around us, counted most. I was twenty-one and the war had taught me life was a precious thing.”

It is not possible to understand the great blossoming of the photography of everyday life that happened in Europe and America in the 1940s and 50s without recognising that a whole generation had been so close to death, so close to losing not so much a great life of achievement, but just a normal one, deep and meaningful. Yes, a lot of that imagery can seem sentimental – smiles on faces, raindrops on roses, couples dancing and kissing, children at play, chance occurrences – but when death looms, it is the small things that matter, and make a life worth living. And perhaps more than any other medium it was photography that could come closest to celebrating those small things, closing the gap between noticing, feeling the significance, and picturing.

Stettner called his photography humanist realism, and regarded it as the highest calling of the medium. He measured almost all photography against it. Any photograph that was too formal, too removed from immediate reality, or too staged was judged not just an artistic aberration but a moral, ethical and even political aberration. This was a familiar sentiment among the observational photographers of Stettner’s generation, who could hardly see why one might want to make or look at photographs made in any other way.

Beyond the steadfast principles of humanist realism, it is Stettner’s inconsistencies and changes of mind that are so striking in his book Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets, and so unexpectedly appealing, because Stettner himself seems fully aware of them. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz appears in one passage as something of a hero for the young Louis, but years later he sees Stieglitz as a conservative, occupying an artistic ivory tower. Henri Cartier-Bresson is an early beacon of commitment and purity, but Stettner comes to see him the way Robert Frank saw him, as a photographer more committed to making beautifully virtuoso compositions than revealing anything about his subjects.

I have the impression Louis Stettner was smart enough to be aware of his own changes of mind, his own doubts, his own misunderstandings and partial understandings, and smart enough to accept that one can never fully know one’s own mind. While there were certain lines he liked to say about his work, he never let them harden into a fixed and superficial autobiographical narrative, of the kind that almost every artist is now obliged to provide. He was too complex and too knowing for that.

When we engage with a range of works by an artist, it is inevitable that we construct from the work an imaginary version of the maker.  It is all but impossible not to do this. When I read the novels of Virginia Woolf, I am building and rebuilding by own version of the writer. This version might or might not correspond with the ‘real’ Virginia Woolf.  But neither the real version, nor the imaginary version are her writings. Looking across Louis Stettner’s work – and bear in mind that his photography was only part of it – what kind of imaginary version of him are we likely to construct? Well, first of all there’s the lifelong commitment and the hunger of his eye. Most observational photographers do their best work in just a few concentrated years, but there is an undeniable restlessness about Stettner, that keeps him going for decades. No period is stronger than any other. His photography is both wise and childlike from the start, and at the end. In those decades the world changes dramatically. The clothes and bodies, the politics and power, the cars and the cafés, buildings and posters. In some ways, a photographer reliant upon the changing world around them for inspiration does not have to change in themself. Change happens of course, to everyone, and Stettner changed more than most of us. But, to circle back to where I began, his approach was broad from the beginning. Humanist realism is not a style, and not even a world view or a disposition. It is more like a reminder to value what is in front of us; to hold it, to appreciate it, to think about it, and to come back to it.

[i] Stettner touches on his testy relationship with the Museum of Modern Art and the photographic establishment at various points in Louis Stettner: Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets, Flammarion, Paris, 1999.

[ii] Louis Stettner, introduction to ‘Speaking Out’, in Louis Stettner: Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets, Flammarion, Paris, 1999, p.288.

[iii] Louis Stettner, ‘Workers Series’, Louis Stettner: Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets, Flammarion, Paris, 1999, p. 88.

[iv] Looking back on The Photo League, Stettner recalled: “While there was noclear-cut political position taken, the overall orientation was radically socially conscious in the sense that it chose the most exploited class to document: the working class.” Lou [sic] Stettner, ‘The Influence of the Photo League’, Camera 35, June, 1977.

[v] Rosenberg, Harold, ‘The Herd of Independent Minds’, Commentary, Vol. 6, (Jan 1, 1948) New York, N. Y., p. 244-254.


  • Copyright © 2023