New York

Lucien Aigner, Dan Weiner

French Cultural Services, Prakapas Gallery

Just as Model was a mentor for Arbus and Lanzano, so might LUCIEN AIGNER have been for DAN WEINER. Aigner came to photography in a peculiar way. An Eastern European journalist freelancing in Paris in the ’20s, Aigner was having trouble with the language barrier, and the camera seemed a natural way to hurdle it. Since he had none of the predispositions of the professional press photographer, he bought one of the new Leicas instead of the press camera that was customary. In those days the photographers with their big, bulky cameras were restricted to the gallery at press conferences and other public occasions. Aigner, having proper press credentials instead of a photographer’s card, could get himself admitted to the main floor with his little Leica concealed in his pocket. In this way he became one of the pioneers in candid photojournalism like Erich Solomon.

Setting up his own one-man press service, Aigner covered politicians for a variety of magazines in Europe, then came to the United States and covered public figures of all sorts for Life, Look, The New York Times, and others. Aigner took up permanent residence in this country around the time that Dan Weiner took up photography itself. Although Weiner did not in fact know Aigner, he developed a very similar career. Working freelance out of a darkroom in his own apartment with his wife, Sandra, as his staff, Weiner supplied pictures to Collier’s, Fortune and Life. Where Aigner’s big stories after coming to this country were features on Einstein, Sara Delano Roosevelt and life up in Harlem, Weiner’s were on Martin Luther King, an Iowa flood and trips he made behind the Iron Curtain, to Italy, or to South Africa, where he did a book on apartheid with Alan Paton.

Before either photojournalist had a reputation for news and celebrity features like these, however, both spent a lot of time just covering private faces in public places, photographing the man in the street. Those mostly early candid photographs are the subject of the exhibitions under discussion here. Of his days in Paris, Aigner has said (in the International Center of Photography’s monograph on him, which is, like the one on Weiner, excellent), “This was the era of the ‘grab shot,’ the sneaky indiscretion. . . . In those days, what interested me was human pettiness.” He sounds as if he was of the same vituperative school as Model, and indeed he did have some choice subjects—Mussolini, for instance, and Hitler—on which to practice that kind of photography. But the pictures in this exhibition were two series he did “Around Bastille Day” in 1934 and 1938. In this situation it was not so much the pettiness as the gawkiness and daffiness of people that interested him. If he had wanted to show up human nature as ugly in these pictures, he would have moved in on his subjects as Model or Lanzano did, and as he himself did when photographing politicians. But here he kept a more amused distance.

In the pictures where Model and Lanzano stepped close to isolate a subject, their theme becomes human character. In those where Aigner stepped back in order to include a number of subjects, his theme becomes the more salutary one of human relations. Perhaps the best pictures in the show are two like this, What’s fun for the crowd is hard work for the “garçon” and Le Touquet Railroad Station, 1934. Both pictures take advantage of new possibilities that the Leica offered. Photographs are of course two-dimensional, but the two dimensions are not really height and width. They are composition and timing, and the Leica was what added the second dimension. With it the photographer could not only frame the picture, but watch the subject develop. He could wait until the gestures and expressions in his frame were at their most suggestive. The camera now allowed him to locate the point where timing and composition intersect, and so to create what Walker Evans once called “symbolic actuality.” That is what Aigner’s photographs achieve at their best.

So do Dan Weiner’s. The pictures in this show were for the most part made around 1950 in Weiner’s native Manhattan in locations, and social milieus, ranging from Orchard Street to East End Avenue to the Plaza Hotel. We are always at least implicitly aware of a social consciousness at work in Weiner’s photography. He received his photographic education at the Photo League, and it stuck. But even when his subjects were stony-faced chauffeurs waiting by their limousines or tweedy dowagers strolling on Fifth Avenue (the latter being among the best pictures in the show), there is little bile in his work. There is an historical irony in both his show and Aigner’s. Both men were for a while photographers of the very famous, who might now be expected to make the more interesting subjects for an exhibition. But as both shows recognize, that’s not so. Celebrity as the two photographers understood and depicted it many years ago is passé now. But human nature, which is the only subject that the pictures in these shows have, never goes out of style.

Colin Westerbeck