Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959

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During and immediately after World War II, a distinctly subjective edge sliced through the work of a number of artists. A constellation of events—the war, the exposure of the Holocaust, the deployment of the atomic bomb, and the onset of the Cold War—made psychological experience a salient subject in America. Abstract Expressionism, film noir, Beat poetry, and the New Journalism emerged in response to the war’s shocking realities, which were increasingly depicted in the mass media through photographs. The 35mm camera—introduced in the 1920s—inaugurated a revolution in photojournalism that thrust viewers onto the front lines of the war and its aftermath. The graphic intensity and urgent drama of these pictures had a lasting impact that resonated throughout postwar culture. Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940—1959 breaks new ground in the study of American art and culture during the World War II era, refuting the common claim that photojournalism was the only significant photographic activity at the time.

Model, Faurer, Croner, Leiter, Klein, and Frank embraced photography as an “act of living”—an exploration of identity rather than a tool for telling a story.

Street Seen features over 100 photographs, as well as a select group of short, non-narrative films, paintings, and drawings. It highlights six photographers—Lisette Model, Louis Faurer, Ted Croner, Saul Leiter, William Klein, and Robert Frank—whose imagery encapsulates the period’s most notable aesthetic achievements. The exhibition celebrates each photographer’s unconventional artistic vision, while acknowledging the challenges they faced in pursuing careers as independent creative photographers between 1940 and 1959.

Image 12Model, Faurer, Croner, Leiter, Klein, and Frank embraced photography as an “act of living”—an exploration of identity rather than a tool for telling a story. They treated their medium as an art form, eschewing mainstream stylistic categories (e.g., documentary, photojournalism, fashion) and breaking the rules of conventional photographic technique to explore the nature of individuality in a rapidly changing, impersonal social environment. Their images, rooted in everyday urban life, are grounded in a photographic sensibility derived from the trauma of the war years and propose spontaneity and subjective experience as the primary forces in creative expression. Like contemporaneous action painters Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, Model, Faurer, Croner, Leiter, Klein, and Frank emphasized the visceral activity of making a picture and confronted the viewer with the material presence of their photographs. In demonstrating a perceivable link between form and feeling, the photographs in Street Seen manifest what is termed the “psychological gesture” of mid-century American life.

Lisette Model was born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in 1901 in Vienna. Beginning in 1920, she studied music for several years under composer Arnold Schönberg. After her father’s death in 1924, Model left for Paris, where she met Evsa Model, a painter whom she later married. In 1933, Model turned from music to visual art, focusing first on painting and then on photography. Her initial instruction in photographic technique came from two individuals, her younger sister, Olga Seybert, and her friend Rogi André (wife of the photographer André Kertész). Model developed her unsentimental and unconventional style of photography while making portraits on the Promenade des Anglaise. In 1938, Model and her husband immigrated to New York. She supported herself teaching photography and working as a freelance photographer. Magazines such as PM Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, and U.S. Camera published her work; her photographs were also included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography in 1940. In 1941, her first solo exhibition was held at the Photo League in New York, and in 1943, she had a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1951, Model became a full-time teacher at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she taught many future photographers, the most well known among them being Diane Arbus. Lisette Model continued to teach and live in New York until her death in 1983.

Louis Faurer was born in Philadelphia in 1916, the son of Polish immigrants. He attended the School of Commercial Art and Lettering from 1937 to 1940. Encouraged by winning the “Photo of the Week” contest for the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, he determined to pursue a career in photography and served as a photographic technician with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. After the war, Lillian Bassman, the art director at Junior Bazaar and protégé of Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, hired him as a fashion photographer. He worked in the industry through the 1960s; his photographs appeared in a number of magazines, including Flair, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look, and Vogue. Faurer pursued independent creative projects alongside his fashion photography, and in 1948, Edward Steichen included Faurer among the artists whose work would comprise the exhibition In and Out of Focus: A Survey of Today’s Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1959, he had his first solo exhibition at Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery in New York, but the following year, he moved to Europe. In 1975, Faurer returned to the United States and resolved to devote himself to creative pursuits outside of fashion photography. He received fellowships from the NEA (1978) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1979) to organize his photographic oeuvre and to continue his independent creative photography projects. He also taught photography at the New School for Social Research, University of Virginia, and Yale University. He died in New York in 2001.

Ted Croner was born in Baltimore in 1922 and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. During World War II, Croner made the most of his high school interest in photography, serving as an aerial photographer for the United States Army Air Corps. He settled in New York in 1946 and rented a studio space with fellow ex-GI Bill Helburn; both struggled for photography assignments. On the advice of Town and Country photographer Fernand Fonssagrives, whom he had met at a ski lodge in Vermont, Croner enrolled in Alexey Brodovitch’s class at the New School for Social Research. By day, Croner made photographs on assignment, but in his free time, he photographed in subways and cafeterias and experimented with camera techniques. This gave his career added momentum, and he received assignments from Alexander Liberman at Vogue, as well as from a number of other fashion magazines. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Croner was included in many important exhibitions that Edward Steichen curated as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, such as In and Out of Focus in 1948 and Four Photographers in 1949. Ted Croner continued to work as a photographer until his death in August 2005.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1923, Saul Leiter attended a theological college for a short time, but in 1946, he moved to New York to pursue his interest in art. He initially intended to be a painter and befriended the Abstract Expressionist artist Richard Pousette-Dart. After encouragement from Pousette-Dart, Leiter turned to photography and began photographing the streets of New York. He opened a studio in the mid-1950s for portrait, fashion, and advertising photography. In 1953, Edward Steichen, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, included some of Leiter’s photographs in the group exhibition Always the Young Strangers. In 1957, Henry Wolf, art director at Esquire, published Leiter’s fashion photographs in the magazine, which led to future assignments at other fashion magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and Show. Leiter executed many of his own projects and often incorporated color. The painterly quality of his photographs became Leiter’s signature and established him as a pioneer in the nascent field of color photography. Saul Leiter continues to exhibit his work and lives in New York.

William Klein was born in New York in 1928, but he spent most of his life in Paris. After serving in the U.S. Army in postwar Germany and Paris, Klein studied art at the Sorbonne and took classes with painter Fernand Léger. During this period, Klein was also experimenting with photography, taking what he knew of abstract painting and incorporating it into photographs, first of his own paintings, and then of everyday urban subjects. Klein returned to New York in 1954, when Alexander Liberman at Vogue noticed his photography and offered him a job. His first book of photographs, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York: William Klein Trance Witness Revels, was published in Paris in 1956 and received rave reviews in Europe. Klein produced three subsequent books: Rome (1958), Moscow (1962), and Tokyo (1964), while continuing to work as a fashion photographer. In 1963, the international jury at Photokina voted Klein one of the thirty most important photographers. After he terminated his contract with Vogue in 1965 and returned to Paris, Klein devoted his career to filmmaking. He made his first film, Broadway by Light, in 1958. Many films followed, such as Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1965), Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1974), The Little Richard Story (1980), and In & Out of Fashion (1993). William Klein lives and works in Paris.

Robert Frank was born in 1924, in Zurich, Switzerland. In an effort to establish himself as a commercial photographer, he worked in various European cities, and in 1947, he immigrated to New York. There he was hired by Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. Dissatisfied with the fashion world, Frank left for Peru and Bolivia in 1948. He traveled often to work on independent photography projects, but he supported himself by continuing to accept freelance assignments for Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines. In 1950, after traveling for a year in France and Italy, he married sculptor Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he had two children, Pablo and Andrea. That same year, he met Edward Steichen, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who included his work in the exhibition 51 American Photographers (1950). With the recommendations of colleagues such as Walker Evans and Steichen, Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 to travel across the United States, photographing American life as he found it. The project resulted in the book, The Americans (1958, Paris; 1959, New York), which solidified Frank’s place in the history of photography. After the publication of The Americans, Frank became interested in filmmaking, directing influential works such as Pull My Daisy in 1959 and Cocksucker Blues in 1972. In the 1970s, Frank again picked up his camera and produced a series of autobiographical and personal photographs. He continues to photograph and divides his time between Nova Scotia and New York.