'Click, click, click, I never wait': the everyday genius of Sabine Weiss

She immortalised street kids and sculptors with an eye to rival Cartier-Bresson. As the Pompidou holds a retrospective, the 93-year-old veteran of street photography praises the power of the ‘instant picture’

‘I am coming!” Sabine Weiss shouts as she descends from her studio to greet me. At 93, the Swiss-French photographer is immaculately presented and immediately comes across as a force to be reckoned with – holding court in her Lilliputian home and studio that nestles in a plant-filled courtyard hidden behind a row of 19th-century apartment buildings, in Paris’s wealthy 16th arrondissement.

The photographer and her late husband, the American painter Hugh Weiss, built the diminutive structure themselves, gradually converting a disused sculpture workshop measuring 5m x 5m into a place to live and work. This incongruous dwelling – home to Weiss for the last 69 years – proudly endures, much like its inhabitant, despite its perpetually changing backdrop. Hugh found the place in 1949, she says, through a connection in a Montmartre paintshop. “He told me, ‘It has no running water and only an outside toilet – it’s perfect!’” She laughs. “But we were happy. That is the most important thing, no?”

Self-portrait 1954.
Self-portrait, 1954, by Sabine Weiss Photograph: ©Sabine Weiss

Weiss is the last living member of the postwar humanist school of photography that includes such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Brassaï and Willy Ronis. Weiss objects to this classification, however, claiming her work is too varied to be reduced to a single historical moment, one that’s synonymous with the mid-century emergence of black-and-white street photography and photojournalism.

Born in 1924 in the Swiss-French border town of Saint-Gingolph, Weiss bought her first camera, a cheap Bakelite model, with her pocket money at the age of eight and soon began developing her own film. She knew, before she had even left school, she was going to be a professional photographer. “At the time,” she says, “the idea of being a professional photographer was inconceivable. There were no books, no exhibitions. Maybe there were books in the States for very well-known photographers, but not in Switzerland.”

Bords de Seine, Paris, France, 1952.
Bords de Seine, Paris, France, 1952. Photograph: Sabine Weiss/© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/ Dist. RMN-GP

Weiss’s circumstances were somewhat unusual. Her father was a skilled chemical engineer who encouraged his daughter’s aptitude for the technical processes of photography, helping her set up her own dark room in the family home, where she taught herself such techniques as salt-paper and silver-gelatin printing. “My family thought I would be a lab technician,” she says.

Weiss completed two lengthy apprenticeships: the first with Studio Boissonnas in Geneva, renowned for its advanced photo processing; the second with the German fashion photographer Willy Maywald, after she moved to Paris in 1946. Maywald was a master with lighting, says Weiss. In her three years with him, she learned techniques that would prove critical to her later remarkable versatility as a photographer.

The largest exhibition of Weiss’s street photography to date – entitled Les Villes, La Rue, L’Autre – has just opened at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It consists of images Weiss made mostly for her own enjoyment. “They are my secret garden, my spiritual nest egg, my personal intimate memory.” She never expected to see them in an exhibition, but enjoyed working with the curators. “They have picked some I would not have chosen.”

As I sit with Weiss, poring over a lifetime’s work spread out on her coffee table, she has the air of someone who has seen much and regrets little. While many of her mostly male peers pushed their practice as an art form – Cartier-Bresson often insisted he was engaging in drawing or painting by other means – Weiss viewed her image-making as its own craft and embraced the label of photographer.

New York, Etats-Unis, 1955.
New York, Etats-Unis, 1955. Photograph: Sabine Weiss/Centre Pompidou/MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/RMN-GP

She distinguished herself through sheer range, travelling continuously, photographing for the New York Times, Newsweek, Life, Vogue, Elle, and undertaking commissions for large institutions, notably Nato. But she also did advertising and fashion photography. “My skill, when I began working for myself alone in Paris, was that I already had a lot of experience. I had seven or eight years of photography behind me. When somebody asked me for a picture story – or for advertising, portraits, all kinds of things – I was able to do it.”

Unlike Doisneau and Brassaï, Weiss’s street photography and reportage was never staged. “All the pictures I take are entirely instant,” she says. “What I like is to make an instant picture. Even if there are no people, I like the click, click, click. I never wait.”

‘These images are my spiritual nest eggs’ … Petit matin brumeux, Lyon, France, 1950.
‘These images are my spiritual nest eggs’ … Petit matin brumeux, Lyon, France, 1950. Photograph: Sabine Weiss/Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist RMN-GP

On the recommendation of Doisneau, who had seen her work in the Paris offices of Vogue, Weiss joined Rapho Guillumette, the foremost press agency specialising in humanist photography. Interestingly – despite the rising demand for her work in the 1950s and 60s, which would have undoubtedly granted Weiss more creative control over her images – she never pitched ideas to publications. She preferred to take assignments and treated each new brief as another challenge, a series of compositional and technical problems to resolve.

Weiss often had to carry heavy equipment, including multiple cameras, lenses and filters. She also routinely worked with children and animals. “In all these shoots I was alone,” she says. “I was outside in the park looking for babies. I was asking people to make me a glass bubble for one campaign, a wardrobe for another. I had also once to find a suit of armour, all sorts of things. Difficult sometimes, you know?” When I note that she seems equally proud of the photographs she produced for advertising as she is of her street photography, she agrees: “Yes, because sometimes they were very challenging technically.”

Weiss has always been ambivalent about being included in exhibitions, viewing print publications as a perfectly suitable showcase. Remarkably, she didn’t even attend her first solo show of 55 photographs at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954, writing to its curator to say she had too many work commitments in Paris. Nor did she see the celebrated 1955 MoMA exhibition The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen, for which the famous photographer travelled to Paris from New York to select three of her photographs.

“This was when we still had no running water and I didn’t have a proper darkroom,” says Weiss. She has a simple explanation for her lack of interest in art world recognition: “I didn’t need to have exhibitions. My husband was a painter and he had to show his work. But I was working with all the magazines and they sent me copies, proof that I have done the work. I could see what I have done.”

‘All the pictures I take are entirely instant’ … Weiss.
‘All the pictures I take are entirely instant’ … Weiss. Photograph: Patrice Delatouche

Weiss also concedes that she was too busy to go socialising with her photography peers in Paris and didn’t care to participate in all the mid-century theoretical discussions surrounding photography. These ideas were generated largely by the publication of Brassaï’s Paris at Night in 1933 – to which Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre and other artists and thinkers responded – along with Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment. In this landmark 1952 publication, Cartier-Bresson outlined his preference for instant photography and dubbed himself “the velvet hand” with “the hawk’s eye”.

Perfectly balanced compositions are undoubtedly Weiss’s great strength, but perhaps less well known is her remarkable ability to establish immediate connections with her subjects, no matter how fleeting the encounter. The warmth of her photographs is striking, particularly when compared with the sometimes clinical coldness of Cartier-Bresson’s street photography.

Alberto Giacometti in his studio, Paris, 1954.
Classic portraits … Alberto Giacometti in his studio, Paris, 1954. Photograph: Sabine Weiss

Nowhere is Weiss’s ease with people more evident than in her black-and-white shots of children playing in the streets of 1950s Europe and the US. When I ask Weiss to identify her favourite photograph, there is a short pause as she leafs through the pile of contact sheets and prints sitting on the table. She retrieves a black-and-white shot of what looks like a five-year-old boy wearing only a threadbare pair of shorts and pretending to be a horse. The child is staring directly into the camera and is surrounded by his friends, who are looking at him with awe and delight. “I like this picture because he is playing with me,” she says. “He is showing me he is a horse.”

Yet Weiss was equally adept at producing classic portraits of celebrated artistic figures, including Samuel Beckett and Joan Miró. She was friends with Alberto Giacometti, having met him in Geneva as a young woman, and photographed the artist, his studio and his work on multiple occasions.

She once put a Giacometti sculpture into the back of her car and asked her husband to drive her and their eight-year-old daughter, Marion, to a lake in nearby Bois de Boulogne, where she wanted to photograph the artwork. Weiss placed the sculpture at the edge of the lake and then returned to her camera, put her head beneath the cloth – and suddenly heard a large splash, which terrified her. I expect her to tell me the sculpture had been destroyed, but she laughs and quickly says: “Luckily, it was only Marion. She climbed out of the water covered in tiny little worms!”

Sabine Weiss: Les Villes, La Rue, L’Autre is at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, until 15 October.

Judith Wilkinson

The GuardianTramp

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