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Remembering Lisl Steiner Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

19 June 2023

The photojournalist Lisl Steiner who captured the most powerful of her age in their unguarded moments died June 7 in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was 95.

"Photographing dictators was always my strength," Ms. Steiner said. "I told them what to do -- stand up, turn left -- and they listened."

That group included Fidel Castro of Cuba, General Augusto Pinochet of Chile and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1927, the family moved to Buenos Aires in Argentina when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Much of her mother's family, which was Jewish, subsequently perished in the concentration camps.

She studied art at the University of Buenos Aires and the Fernando Fader School of Decorative Arts. But by her own admission, school was not for her. She taught herself instead.

She worked as an assistant on documentary films and had an active art career drawing portraits of famous musicians.

When she was in her late twenties, a boyfriend gave her a camera, her first. She took it with her to the southern coast where she took a photo of Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, the Argentine general who had recently seized power in a military coup, as he was fishing.

That photo was published in Life magazine and launched her photojournalism career.

She moved to New York in 1950 to freelance for Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Life, and the Associated Press. Her assignments included Henri Cartier-Bresson, President Jimmy Carter and the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

One typical Steiner image was a shirtless Louis Armstrong captured in 1957 backstage at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. He had, she said, just made a pass at her and she had passed on his pass. But got the shot.

When she covered Fidel Castro's visit to Argentina in 1959, she accidentally loaded an exposed roll of film in her camera, double-exposing a shot of the Castro dining inside a wealthy Buenos Aires home on an image of the crowd outside.

In 1973 she captured a weary B.B. King in the bed of his Philadelphia hotel room wearing pajamas and wielding a pipe.

The politically powerful and celebrities were not her only interest, even if they paid the bills.

In 1959, grateful for her own childhood escape from oblivion, she began a project that would come to be known as Children of the Americas. Inspired by the children's poems of the Chilean Gabriela Mistral, it documented the ordinary lives of children from North and South America. She continued the project into the 1970s.

The images were not glamorous but were still unguarded. Among them is a child dancing on a floor covered with of straw hats and the coffin of a child with a box next to it for donations to pay for the funeral.

On her 77th birthday, Steiner invited a number of chimneysweeps to bring luck to all her guests at the party held at the WestLicht gallery. During this Homage to all Chimneysweeps, Steiner gave her photographic archive to the Austrian National Library and the pianist Paul Gulda played one of his compositions as a surprise for birthday girl.

Steiner moved to Westchester County, New York, in the early 1970s. A longtime resident of Pound Ridge, she spent 24 years living there with her husband, the psychiatrist Meyer Monchek, who died in 1992.

While the video above is matter-of-fact Steiner, she later recorded a lament about the vertical lines around her mouth causing her red lipstick to migrate away from her lips. Characteristically candid she explains it's not what she looks like that matters any more, it's who she is.

And now that she is gone, even more so.

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