An Art of Observation

Photography is an art of observation. Pictures linger in our minds for generations, giving us a record of the past while asking us to think of the power of photography. The Photojournalist by Andreas Feininger is one of these monumental photographs.

The Early Years

Renowned photographer Andreas Feininger didn’t set out to become one of the masters of 20th-century photography. However, he did grow up in an influential environment of art and design. Born in Paris in 1906 (died in 1999,) Feininger’s family moved to Berlin in 1908 and then to Weimar in 1919. His father, celebrated Expressionist painter Lyonel Feininger, was an art educator at the iconic Bauhaus art school. After studying at the Bauhaus himself, Andreas Feininger pursued architectural studies in the 1920s.

It’s at this time his interest in photography began. He used a camera as a “mechanical sketchbook” to aid his architectural designs and received guidance from the pioneering artist and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Feininger would become a technical expert in photography. He would develop a sophisticated sense of composition while creating photography emphasizing the power that content carries in an image. He established his fundamental principles for photography, creating a bold and personal aesthetic in black and white photography.

“The basic principle of his photographic work is especially evident in the example of picture composition, which he himself describes as “clarity, simplicity, and structure.” But he simultaneously demands that the picture must say something to the observer. To him, technical perfection is never an end in itself.” Reinhold Mißelbeck, 20th Century Photography.

From Germany to New York

After that, Feininger would work in Germany as an architect and photographer for four years. That is, until the ugly specter of the Nazi party began to surface and made his living situation unsustainable. Feininger moved to Paris in 1932 and found work in the studio of seminal Modernist architect Le Corbusier. After working for Le Corbusier for a year in Paris, Feininger moved to Sweden and established his own architectural photography company in Stockholm. Consequently, Feininger began selling his first photographs in 1932.

By the end of the 30s, Feininger moved to New York. He devoted his career to photography, and in 1943 became a Life magazine photographer. For the following two decades from his arrival to New York, Feininger completed over 400 assignments for the storied publication and published over 30 books. Feininger’s body of work became crucial to the burgeoning practice of contemporary photojournalism. He became one of its most influential figures while contributing to photography as an art form.

“The job of the good photographer is to use the superiority of the camera to his advantage and avoid the interiority. And for instance, some instances where the camera is superior to the eye is due to the fact that the focal length of the lens of the eye is fixed. In other words, we see everything always in the same scale, no matter what we do. Well, if we use a camera, we can put on lenses with long, short, medium focal length and get any degree of scale or magnification that we want.” – Andreas Feininger.

Andreas Feininger, The Photojournalist (Dennis Stock), New York
Andreas Feininger, The Photojournalist (Dennis Stock), New York, 1951

The Photojournalist

Andreas Feininger’s The Photojournalist was taken as part of a Life magazine contest in 1951, Life’s Young Photographers. Commissioned to make a portrait of the winner, Feininger photographed Dennis Stock, a young magazine member. Stock had trained under Life magazine titan Gjon Mili and would go on to become a member of Magnum Photos.
In Feininger’s The Photojournalist, we see the photographer as his eyes merge into the lens of his Leica camera. Indeed, while we view the picture, we are being recorded, witnessing the act of a photographer observing. Within a tight, black-and-white composition that increases a sense of immediacy and intimacy, the image seems reductive yet still mesmerizing. While the hard lighting of the spotlight shines on the camera and excludes the rest of the figure, the photographer’s mechanical eye appears as the stern, omnipresent spectator. The photograph is distilled to its very essentials. In effect, Feininger’s work reaches into the psyche of photography. Not only does it record what we see, it sees who we are. It acts, like many photographs, as a window into another realm. But also as a mirror, reflecting back on its subject. Thus, the picture carries premonitions of a future where technology and the act of photography are universal.
“The intensity of his “seeing” is almost palpable, the lens and viewfinder of his Leica become extensions of his eyes and mind. The grip that holds the camera is firm yet sensitive, the grip of a pro. Exaggerated perspective – distortion – was used here deliberately to symbolize nearness and evoke a feeling of immediacy.” – Andreas Feininger, The Creative Photographer.

The Camera as an Extension of the Eye

In Andreas Feininger’s The Photojournalist, the camera becomes quite literally and metaphorically an extension of the eye. If we allow photography to be the act of seeing and recording, this picture represents one of the purest homages to the strength and power of observation. Unadorned and essential, the subject becomes the embodiment of a life devoted to taking the time to truly see. The photograph itself has an almost hypnotic and penetrating power to capture our gaze.