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Matinee: 'Sabine Weiss, A Photographer's Life' Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

7 November 2020

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 278th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Sabine Weiss, A Photographer's Life.

This 3:51 production by Les Rencontres d'Arles, the annual summer photography festival, celebrates Swiss-French photographer Sabine Weiss, the winner of its Women in Motion Award for Photography, in a series of interviews recorded over her 78-year career.

The 96-year-old Weiss, who's fond of explaining to her colleagues that "your mother wasn't born yet" when she confesses to having done one thing or another, was a child of eight when she bought a Bakelight camera with her pocket money and learned to develop her own film.

It didn't hurt that her father was a chemical engineer who set up a darkroom for her where she taught herself film processing and making prints. "My family thought I would be a lab technician," she told one interviewer.

Instead, she wanted to be a professional photographer, an unheard of thing in Switzerland. But she apprenticed with Studio Boissonnas in Geneva where she learned advanced photo processing techniques and then worked in Paris as an assistant for German fashion photographer Willy Maywald.

Her beautifully balanced compositions are distinguished by their intimacy with subjects she captured spontaneously, never staging a shot. Her portraits reveal a rapport with the subject that goes beyond merely making them comfortable to revealing their character.

She has been linked to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Brassaï and Willy Ronis as a humanist, but she brushes off the categorization as too simple. She is a complete photographer, she explains in this video.

And she did do it all. Portraits, photojournalism, street, fashion, advertising photography.

And yet she avoided the limelight, too busy to socialize or make a name for herself debating the art and craft of photography when that was the hot topic of the age.

In 1949, she and her husband, the American painter Hugh Weiss, were given a tip on an abandoned sculpture workshop in Paris. They have lived there since then, turning the place into a home.

It had no running water when they moved in, just an outhouse. She thought it was perfect. "But we were happy. That is the most important thing, no?"

To be in love? With someone, with what you do, with life? Ah, oui!


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