The powerful, often haunting photographs of Louis Faurer (1916-2001), who was born in south Philadelphia and captured his first images of urban life on the city’s streets, will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from June 14-September 7, 2003. Faurer is highly regarded among critics, scholars, and artists as an innovator of post-WWII New York City street photography. Louis Faurer: A Photographic Retrospective, the first survey of his work in the United States since 1981, and its accompanying major catalogue, thoroughly examines Faurer’s significance within the history of photography, providing the most in-depth view of his productive career to date.
The exhibition includes more than 100 photographs from throughout Faurer’s career (1937-1983), with particular emphasis on his highly productive years at midcentury. Some of his most innovative and influential photographs were taken between 1947 and 1951. During those years, in an extraordinary burst of creative energy, Faurer photographed New York City street life with great clarity, tenderness, and wit. Also on view are a dozen of his color photographs — most never previously exhibited or published — and a selection of his best fashion photos for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Flair, Vogue, and Mademoiselle.
"It is fitting for this comprehensive retrospective of Louis Faurer’s remarkable career to conclude its national tour in his hometown of Philadelphia, where he forged his style as an artist," said Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs at the Alfred Stieglitz Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art. "His work is gritty and edgy, but always sympathetic. He interpreted his subjects with a moving combination of tenderness and humor, the qualities that his friend and colleague Robert Frank regards as the key ingredients in Faurer's photography."
Born in Philadelphia to Polish immigrant parents, Faurer was artistic from a young age. As a boy, he liked to draw. After graduating from South Philadelphia High School for Boys in 1934, he put his creative talents to work sketching caricatures and reading palms on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. He bought his first camera from a photographer friend in 1937. Within a few months, his photograph Happy, Cantrell St. (1937), depicting a small boy under a row of blaring trombones, won a photography prize in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger's weekly newspaper contest. Though he was studying commercial lettering and had secured freelance work painting advertising signs and lettering posters, winning the award convinced him to pursue a career in photography.
Faurer was largely self-taught, though he took a brief military course in basic photography and worked as a technician in two portrait studios. He got his first taste of street photography on Market Street in Philadelphia’s central business district, where he repeatedly captured images of crippled beggars situated between striding shoppers and the goods displayed behind storefront windows. The paradoxical tension between physical intimacy and psychological distance is a constant in his work. He was influenced and encouraged by photographer friends who were students of Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts). Brodovitch started the Design Laboratory at the museum school during his influential tenure as art director at Harper's Bazaar.
From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, Faurer worked as a fashion photographer. What he became known for, though, was the style of street photography that he initiated in Philadelphia and honed in New York City. Using a small camera that allowed him to work quickly, he developed a radical new aesthetic style that reflected the energy of New York City street life and simultaneously isolated distinctive individuals or small groups of people. He spent many nights taking pictures in Times Square, and then developing and printing in a studio he shared with the photographer Robert Frank, whom he met in 1947. The two shared a disdain for most of their colleagues in the fashion world and became friends, calling one another "Sammy" after the lead character in Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Faurer’s photographs from this period capture the grittiness, irony, and humanity of urban life. The power of his tender touch is evident in Eddie On Third Avenue, New York City (1948), a portrait of a seemingly hapless man who gazes intently downward, one hand holding a sprig of flowers and the other a cloth tote. In Accident (1949-52), the shock of a collision is expressed by a shivering boy standing in the open space around a chalk outline of a pedestrian injured in an automobile accident.
Faurer was a master of technique and a relentless perfectionist. He sometimes used reflections, double exposures, and sandwiched negatives to convey the complexity in city life. After World War II, he challenged technical boundaries in his choice of film and lighting, creating softer, sometimes blurry images. Those photographs reflected the uncertainty and apprehensions that many Americans felt at the time. In the darkroom, Faurer pushed the composition and the interpretation of the negative to achieve the impact he wanted. He printed most of his own photographs into the 1970s. In the 1980s, Faurer´s work was rediscovered by a new generation of photographers, critics, and dealers, resulting in several important shows. At the same time, he held a number of teaching positions and began to exhibit, publish, and sell his work. In the midst of this new success, a car struck Faurer as he exited a bus and he never fully recovered from his injuries. He died in New York in 2001.
Louis Faurer: A Photographic Retrospective has been organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Funding is provided by the Andrea Frank Foundation. The exhibition was seen in Houston, Andover, San Diego and Chicago before concluding its national tour in the artist’s hometown of Philadelphia. It is coordinated in Philadelphia by Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The exhibition catalogue by Anne Wilkes Tucker is the first to chronicle the remarkable work of Louis Faurer. The 208-page book, published by the MFAH in association with Merrell Publishers, London, contains 140 images, and is available in the Museum Store, by calling (800) 329-4856, or by visiting the Museum’s Online Store at www.philamuseum.org.