New York

Louis Faurer

Light Gallery

In 1948, refugee director Robert Siodmak made his best movie for 20th Century-Fox. It’s called Cry of the City, and in it a hood named Martin Rome (Richard Conte) is on the run in New York after having been wounded in a shooting. At one point Martin gets a rather flashy ex-girlfriend of his, Brenda (Shelley Winters), to help him find medical attention. As she drives the semiconscious Martin around the city at night, an unlicensed doctor who has demanded cash up front operates on him in the back seat of the car. At last the doctor tells Brenda she’ll have to pull over. She does, on a crowded side street somewhere near Times Square. As she waits beside the car, fending off a drunk who is trying to pick her up, the doctor completes his patch job on Martin, and then leaves without bothering to answer Brenda’s lament, “What am I gonna do with him?” She climbs back into the car and continues her wanderings through the city with Martin beside her moaning in pain.

Louis Faurer’s best photographs, which were made around the same time as Cry of the City and in some of the same locations, might almost have been used by Siodmak as point-of-view shots. They are like a set of jazzy, hallucinated inserts of things Martin might have seen while he lolled in the back seat and the city rolled past him outside the car. A woman at the side door of the old Madison Square Garden drags on a joint as a man inside the light behind her flexes his muscles for another man to feel. People scurry for cover from a passing shower under halated street lights and the brooding silhouette of the Manhattan Bridge. The back ends of three black limousines glisten in the darkness. Shadowy figures hunch along a sidewalk next to a preternaturally bright fence at a construction site; in the background, squares of light trail above the city from the windows of skyscrapers whose outlines are scarcely visible. A fat, tough-looking woman spews cigarette smoke against the neon lights. It is as if she were exhaling that toke a woman had on a joint in another picture.

These photographs are short on composition, but long on atmosphere. In a picture that Siodmak might have used as the concluding one in his series of inserts, the night is over. It is perhaps now early morning, and a crowd has gathered on a sidewalk to watch something that is out of our line of sight. At the back of the crowd stands a curly-haired young man in scuffed-up shoes and a pinstripe suit so loose on him that it looks a little zooty. The bagginess of the suit emphasizes how slight he is, how young—hardly more than a boy. He’s noticeable because he’s the only one not bundled against the cold in a topcoat, and because he stands a bit back from the crowd. Although he’s watching the scene as intently as the others, he doesn’t crane forward as they do. He’s calmer, more detached, more observant somehow. He is, as a matter of fact, Robert Frank.

Frank was to bring to the kind of photography Louis Faurer was doing in those days that sense of composition, of coherence, that Faurer’s own work never entirely achieves. How much Faurer wanted that element for his pictures is apparent from some vintage prints I saw several years ago (none were included, unfortunately, in this show). They were prints he had cut into extreme shapes—I remember that one had the proportions of a panorama—in order to wrest form from negatives that didn’t quite reveal it by themselves. So Faurer’s place in the history of photography ultimately depends on his relationship with Frank, whom he met at the Harper’s Bazaar studio shortly after Frank arrived in America. The younger photographer had already begun to develop his own unique style in Europe, and it is probable he would have gone on to do The Americans even if he hadn’t known Faurer. Still, Faurer’s friendship and encouragement came at a crucial point in Frank’s career. And although the vision of America that Frank brought to realization may only have been inchoate in the pictures Faurer did, the fact remains that the vision was there, in Faurer’s work, first.

The other merit that cannot be denied to Faurer’s pictures is their value as social history. I might even call it their prescience. In the late ’40s, the streets of America’s cities swarmed with people and activity as never before. The wartime housing shortage was still being acutely felt in the cities, with the consequence that a lot of people wanted to escape cramped, inadequate apartments at night. In those days before air conditioning, going out to an “air-cooled” movie or a bar, or just hanging out on the street, was common entertainment. This was also before the national diaspora of television, which has isolated us in our homes and depopulated the nighttime streets as effectively as a neutron bomb. That the decade 1945–55 would be the last, meteoric blaze of nightlife in America was not yet apparent. Nevertheless, Faurer’s work seems to presage it. There is something forlorn about his pictures. Darkness encroaches, literally, on our romance of the city. The characters he photographed represent the whole nocturnal population as a marginal one, the people who live in a dream world.

In the street photographs that Harry Callahan and his disciples made in Chicago a decade after Faurer’s peak period, the desolation of the city, its new emptiness and menace, becomes explicit. That is the eventuality of which Faurer’s photographs forewarn us, as do some contemporary movies like Cry of the City. A legend that sprang up about Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, the seminal movie of the postwar era, was that to get enough stock to shoot it, he had acquired 35mm still-photograph rolls and spliced them together. One might imagine that Robert Siodmak also got some of the film noir with which he loaded his cameras from still photographers like Faurer. How strong an attraction the tender pessimism of Faurer’s work could have for a recent European emigré is shown by the example of Robert Frank.

Colin Westerbeck