The Resonant Photography of Evelyn Hofer

Evelyn Hofer Street Photography
Photo by: Evelyn Hofer

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Evelyn Hofer was born in Germany (1922) and died in Mexico (2009), and was all-in about photography. Her body of work offers a hinge between the objective and American-Colourtraditions; and has been accurately titled as “the most famous unknown photographer in America”. Her lens was mainly filled with human and architectural subjects, and in her later years,she turned her camera towards still-life images. But despite the somewhat isolated photographic genres she got involved with, her overall aesthetic shares a resonant tranquility that offers a slow paced visual consumption experience.

At the age of eleven, her family fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland; an event that in my opinion, influenced her interest towards visual expression, same which eventually found a solid ground in photography. Meaning that she got seriously interested in the discipline at a privileged young age. Her determination, routed her towards the profession; and quickly became an apprentice at a portrait studio in her new hometown. There, she also took private lessons from the German photographer Hans Finsler, who happened to be one of the pioneers behind the “new objectivity” artistic movement, the same which might have settled the foundations of what we now relate to the Becher or the Düsseldorf school. And pretty much like August Sander (1876-1964), she seemed to be drawn towards the overall character of the people she was able to photograph with her large format 4×5 camera.

The so-called “new objectivity”, was an artistic movement that arose during the 1920s as a reaction against expressionism, hence its realist and direct nature. Due to sharp focus and a notorious absence of subjectively implied intentions in the images, one could relate this movement to the “straight photography” movement that took place in the United States from the 1910s to the early 1930s. But the special thing about the German movement is the stronger approach towards social individuals. Placing it, at least in terms of the photographers themselves, more into the documentary and scientific spectrums; rather than the artistic and creative ones.

But one of the main aesthetic characteristics of Hofer’s work, is the fact that she dwelled magnificently between both monochrome and color formats. I’ll expand later about how she relied on both formats when taking her photographs, but the important thing to know now is that she started using color when very few professional and serious photographers were using it. Color film is now known for giving particular hints about the historical context surrounding a moment captured with a camera, something which could translate into a positive thing regarding truth and objectivity. But this wasn’t always perceived as such. In the earlier days of photography, those odd results produced by color films were actually considered by many image professionals to be off-centred from reality.

Therefore, in the past-present, monochrome was considered as a more truthful and serious format, and color was reserved for domestic and vernacular purposes. Nowadays, particular tints, tones, and chromatic behaviors, are quite useful elements of truth when breaking down the morphological elements of a photograph. Now, this is quite a paradox indeed that we should explore in the near future.

Back to Evelyn Hofer, she was not only a talented photographer but also a quite skilled chemist. And that means she was involved with the complete workflow behind a photograph’s outcome. Nowadays, it is common that photographers get their hands around the complete procedure from concept or ideas to the final publication online. But back in the days of film, the last part, the one related to the output, wasn’t always popular among photographers. Despite knowing the basics of film developing, printing, and enlarging, not all photographers had the resources for doing it on a regular basis. Therefore, particular labs took care of that.

With the advent of digital photography, printing is something that has been progressively getting more and more lost. It is true that the wonders of the internet has allowed a different showcasing channel when it comes to photography, but there is something reflexive and even introspective about printing our own images. Personally, I understand printing as a material act or practice, with the symbolic strength of triggering a deeply significant relationship. Therefore, if anyone feels uneasy about its current state with photography, then maybe printing some of them might get things freshened up. Printing offers a distraction-less and analog visual and aesthetic experience that we should all try at least once. And trust me, it will make you more connected with your own photographs. Editing-wise, it is also beneficial to print images for a better selection of the shots that will be published, especially when crafting an essay or a story with them. And unlike black and white film, printing in color required tremendous skills and practice; and it wasn’t cheap either.

Perhaps, one of the main reasons why Hofer’s body of work is so resonant and easy to pin-point toward her authorship, is the fact that her photographic knowledge excelled the craft itself. Beyond photography techniques and the chemistry involved with film developing and printing, her studies also covered art theory, especially aesthetics and composition. But all that knowledge does not make good nor meaningful photographs by itself. Those photographs have to be the result of combining all her visual education with relevant topics. And that is exactly what she did when developing her documentary and street projects. Her photographs actually convey her own sociological concerns, and offer a precise look into the almost-natural social conditions of families and other social groups.

Here, Evelyn Hofer teaches us photographers a valuable lesson regarding the purpose behind our photographs. And of course, she is not the only person combining scientific concerns with photography; but is one of the few trained photographers I reckon, finding conceptual comfort in the social sciences. Usually, trained anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and even economists (like Sebastião Salgado) find in photography a powerful tool for their inquiries, quests and researches, rather than the other way around. In a nutshell, it seems that trained professionals are able to cope their interests and passions with photography in a healthy way; and that’s definitely a huge relief for anyone undergoing through an existential crisis out there right now.

And for those who love romanticizing one-person armies, pay a close attention to the following lesson on the importance of collaborations. In the mid-1950s, her career took an important turn when the American novelist, critic and political activist Mary McCarthy asked her to provide photographs for “The Stones of Florence”, a literary exploration of the history and culture of the Italian city. And from that moment on, she worked with several writers throughout her whole life. Some of the collaborations she worked with included V.S. Pritchett and Jan (James) Morris, and together produced several books in which she mixed portraits and land or cityscapes of Spain, Dublin, New York City, London, Paris, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C. As a social scientist myself, I’ve spotted a strongly common trait among individuals in the photographic community; and sadly, it isn’t a beneficial one. Many photographers fall as victims of their own egos, and deny the opportunity of working with other creatives. In simple words, many photographers that I’ve known so far could be making more meaningful projects if they open themselves to collaborating with other people, especially with other photographers.

So far, I’ve somewhat reduced Evelyn Hofer’s photographic heritage as a resonant visual experience. Smaje which isn’t a clear adjective, and deserves some further elaboration. Here, I’m borrowing the concept from German sociologist Harmut Rosa; who under the word “Resonanz“, presents a counter-argument to the concept of “alienation“, especially the one attributed to the social acceleration currently structuring our contemporary social realm.

Cleared that out, why exactly am I entitling Hofer’s work as a resonant experience? Simple, her flawless style is capable of presenting us the quotidian in a way that strikes back on the current speed in which we are currently immersed. Sitting down, and diving into her photographs results in an emancipatory act against the unsatisfied and constant demand from the late-capitalism regarding our precious time. Same which, in the words of S. Garfield, has become our most scarce resource in life. Therefore, dedicating a couple of hours to watching her photographs, even online, is time very well-spent; or even invested, if you like.

What we experience while watching Evelyn Hofer’s photographs is a somewhat sweet spot between Germany’s objective visual tradition and the vibrant dullness of the “New American Color” from the late 1960s and ’70s. More precisely, one feels a heavy influence from August Sander’s psychological approach while crafting his portraits, and a proto-aesthetic that would later evolve into the more sophisticated term quoted before. Same which now is heavily associated with several photographers like Alex Webb, Joel Meyerowitz, Joel Sternfeld, Max Regenberg, Richard Misrach, Simone Kappeler, Stephen Shore, Steve Fitch, William Christenberry, William Eggleston; and of course, Hofer herself. Which has been notoriously linked to influencing a diverse array of photographers, with very distinct genres, like Thomas Struth (the Düsseldorf school movement), Alec Soth (documentary), and Rineke Dijkstra (deadpan). However, the big distinction regarding her work, is the slow-paced rhythm one can feel in them. Especially in her portraits, which are clearly, not the product of fleeting moments or “images à la sauvette”. Something that makes even more sense when considering that, like Mark Power, she worked with a cumbersome large format viewfinder camera (4×5 in her case). Something quite unimaginable among a street photographer, especially when considering all the cult surrounding candid shots and inconspicuous approaches towards the subjects.

Avoiding to be seduced by her aesthetic, is quite impossible. And I can only imagine, how difficult and frustrating it could be to even slightly try to mimic her style. Upon such an unreachable venture, let’s stick with the morphological elements that are “less tortuous” to adopt. But be careful, because none of the following is easy, and she mastered them three like the elite photographer she was.

First, the format ambidexterity. Nowadays, the vast majority of high-quality black and white photography is produced during the raw development stages of the photographic workflow. Usually, cameras record light with their sensors and produce sRGB-based raw files; which then are interpreted by the photographers while converting them into monochrome. This allows us to be more flexible and creative about our image-related decisions. But back in the days of film, the format was a tougher choice; one shot either color or black & white, and the result wasn’t nearly as transferable as it is today. Pretty much like Helen Levitt, Evelyn Hofer was a genius when deciding whether a photograph should be taken in color or in black and white right on the spot. This is a skill that requires an extremely accurate interpretation of colors and light.

But unlike Levitt, Hofer was doing this with a large format four-by-five camera; same which leads us to the second layer of complexion behind her work. Shooting landscapes, architecture, and pretty much anything in the studio, is quite easier to do with such a large camera. But street photography, that’s definitely something else. And even with high speed emulsions, shooting with this format requires a slower pace. Same which we could mimic by shooting with extremely small SD cards (like 1GB ones), or simply by shooting film. Most common formats like 135 (36 frames) and 120 (12 exposures) are highly advised for slowing down your shooting habits. And last but not least, she was brilliant at composing in a vertical way; making her images more iconic in fact. Composing in vertical mode is often hard because we are used to seeing horizontally with our own eyes. Hence the odd results when one simply turns the camera into vertical without any compositional criteria guiding the frame.

In conclusion, taking into account that we have helplessly been drowning inside a Brobdingnagian ocean of visual content throughout the last decade, studying the work of Evelyn Hofer is vital for any photographer who wishes to stand out from the crowd. And not by replicating her images and style, but by understanding how important a well-grounded visual discourse is in order to achieve meaningfully aesthetic results.