In Love With Paris and New York

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The New York Sun

It was disconcerting to learn from an article by William Ewing in the magazine Leica World that portraits are out and “face photographs” are in. Face photographers, Mr. Ewing wrote, do not believe “that a single image can represent, in any meaningful way, the complexity of a human being.” They “contest” that “physiognomy encodes truth about character and personality.” A picture of a face should have the same valence as a picture of a wall. That, apparently, was the theme of “Making Faces,” the exhibition at the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland, that Mr. Ewing was writing about.

Fortunately for us, Louis Stettner, who has been taking photographs for seven decades, does not know this. Otherwise, we would not have the portrait “Big Face, New York” (c. 1990s), the first picture in “Streetwise 1947-2006,” an exhibition of Mr. Stettner’s work at Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

Mr. Stettner, born in Brooklyn in 1922, was given a box camera at an early age. He has been photographing ever since, and he has never stopped teaching himself how to be a better photographer.

His only formal instruction was a short course in basic photography at the Photo League when he was a teenager, but he hung out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photographic print collection, Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place Gallery, and with midcentury masters like Sid Grossman and Paul Strand. In Paris after World War II, he befriended Brassai and such postwar French photographers as Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis. The visual intelligence of Mr. Stettner’s photographs shows he profited from his attention to the work of others.

“Big Face” is 24 inches by 24 inches; and the 4 square feet are taken up almost entirely by a woman’s face. Not only is the black-and-white image big, but its component parts are, too: a big nose, big lips with lots of lipstick smeared on, big sunglasses, big earrings, a big turban, big pores. And most of all, a big personality: She is a character.

Mr. Stettner works in the tradition of Humanist Realism, and I expect that beyond the formal properties of “Big Face,” he wants us to confront a human being. The woman appears to be somewhat eccentric, and it was probably that flaky quality that attracted him to her as a subject. There may not be enough information in the picture for us to plumb the depths of her soul to its nethermost recesses, but we certainly have a sense of who she is.

The European practitioners of “face photography” seem to feel that since they cannot show everything, they will resolve to show nothing. A boy from Brooklyn knows it’s enough to do the best you can.

Also at Benrubi is Mr. Stettner’s well-known “Avenue de Chatillon, 14th Arrond, Paris” (c. 1949).The camera looks down a sidewalk with small shops and apartments on the left and regularly spaced trees on the right. We see only the left side of the trunk of the nearest tree, so its dark silhouette helps frame the picture. The branches of the trees are bare and elegant as they recede into a haze far down the street. There are no cars in the street, but halfway down the sidewalk a woman stands with her dog. The deep perspective of the picture, its simplicity and stylishness, give moment to a scene that would otherwise be of little interest.

More than four decades later, Mr. Stettner was back in Paris and shot “Place St. Augustin” (1993). Again perspective, simplicity, and stylishness give life to a scene that would otherwise hold little interest, but in a quite different way. In the bottom half of the picture is a shallow puddle on the macadam street in which we see reflected upside-down a tree and the upper few stories of a Beaux Arts building. The tilt of the camera makes the man’s legs at the top of the picture appear to be walking up rather than across the scene. The hint of weather, the peek-a-boo bit of reflected elegance in the puddle, the raked angle, and the lone pedestrian all work together in Mr. Stettner’s sophisticated art.

Mr. Stettner loves Paris, but he seems to love New York more – over half the pictures in “Streetwise” were taken here. “The Great White Way, Times Square, New York” (1954) is a fine example of a genre the midcentury New York School photographers made a specialty of: the crossroads of the nation seen at night. The picture is dominated by a heavyset man in an overcoat and a fedora silhouetted against a gaggle of electric signs, the most prominent of which announces “Marlon Brando On the Waterfront.” The camera is slightly tilted so the figure of the man and everything else lists as if the ground at 42nd Street is unsteady.

Several pictures from the late 1950s depict the old Penn Station. “Woman on Empty Platform, Penn Station, New York” (1958) reprises in many ways the technique of “Avenue de Chatillon.” The camera looks straight down an almost deserted railroad platform instead of an almost deserted sidewalk. The regularly spaced steel beams on the left are like the trees on the right of the French picture, and the train on the right like the buildings on the left. A puff of smoke backlit by an overhead light recalls the haze in Paris. And although the ambiences differ, the sight of a lone woman in an infinitely receding vista is still affecting.

Mr. Stettner has worked assiduously over a long period to master the art of photography, and “Streetwise” testifies to his accomplishment. Mr. Ewing’s postmodern avant-gardists contest the notion “that a photograph is an accurate and straightforward transcription of reality.” Mr. Stettner knows it is not, but his work provides pleasure and insight, and that is reality enough.

Until July 29 (41 E. 57th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, 212-751-0819).

The New York Sun

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