Critics’ Picks

Sabine Weiss, Porte de Saint-Cloud, Parigi, Francia, 1950, black-and-white photograph.

Sabine Weiss, Porte de Saint-Cloud, Parigi, Francia, 1950, black-and-white photograph.


Sabine Weiss

Casa dei Tre Oci
Giudecca 43
March 11–October 23, 2022

When she died this past December at ninety-seven, Sabine Weiss was hailed as the last of the humanists. She also remains among the least well-known, despite a long and varied career. The French-Swiss photographer got her start as an apprentice to Willy Maywald in Paris, and, after signing with the Rapho agency in 1952, shot editorial and advertising for magazines like Vogue, Holiday, and Life. After the workday, Weiss wandered the rundown postwar streets, photographing the people she encountered (three such photos were included in 1955’s “Family of Man”). By the 1970s, she could afford to devote herself more fully to her own artistic practice, traveling extensively in Europe, Egypt, India, and further afield.

Weiss’s work displays an aesthetic refinement that reflects her grounding not, like the other humanists, in the male-dominated field of photojournalism, but rather in fashion and advertising, areas long overlooked by museums. In this show, some two-hundred compositions let us see how Weiss’s street photography is a grittier mirror image of her commercial work, the “real” version of the ideal subjects she mythologized while on assignment: instead of giggling babies (a specialty), Spanish street urchins; instead of beautified models, dancing Roma girls. Her style is marked less by the “poetry of the instant” insisted on by the show’s title and more by a kind of painterly composition that recalls Walker Evans, André Kertész, and even the hazy elegance of Brassaï. Suspicions of voyeurism—perhaps an inevitability when poverty, urban childhood, ugliness, and isolation are your themes—fall away when considering the subversive dignity of Weiss’s unfailingly beautiful images. Her 1952 sequence of photographs of elderly “aliénées” (mentally ill women), for example, are of a piece with her famous portraits of Giacometti and Françoise Sagan. We always feel the capacious humanity not only of the people in the pictures, but also of the person behind the lens.