“8 Million Stories, Has the City of New York”
A popular song from the late 1970s includes the phrase, “8 million stories, has the city of New York”. It expresses what most New Yorkers know to be true. In NYC, every individual carries their own narrative. All within the multitude of people and cacophony of the city that surrounds them. Louis Stettner, an acclaimed photographer renowned for exploring the legendary cities of New York and Paris, documents the myriad stories and magic moments of individuals’ everyday lives. Stettner began his career with the New York Photo League, a cooperative of photographers from NYC, which included 20th-century masters like Weegee, Berenice Abbott, and Robert Frank. Certainly, using the League’s tenets of social consciousness, handheld cameras, and the power of observation, Stettner’s photographs became a compelling record of the events of New York City and its residents. They show life in an unvarnished yet serendipitous contemporary world.
“My way of life, my very being is based on images capable of engraving themselves indelibly in our inner soul’s eye.” – Louis Stettner.
A Native New Yorker
A native New Yorker, Louis Stettner was born in Brooklyn in 1922. He grew up in the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Bensonhurst. As a child, his father, a cabinet maker, gifted him a box camera. Louis initially worked in his father’s trade and funded his love of photography with his earnings. His family would travel to the Metropolitan Museum of art, allowing the young Louis to study the museum’s print room. While he started working as a photographer in the 1930s, in 1940, Stettner enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a combat photographer. After that, the budding photographer would join the Photo League in New York. There he began creating socially conscious work focusing on documenting the lives of working-class Americans.
“A city I love, a city that forgives nothing but accepts everyone – a place of a thousand varied moods and vistas of countless faces in a moving crowd, each one silently talking to you.” – Louis Strand.
Between the Big Apple and the City of Lights
As a result after visiting Paris post-war in 1946, Stettner decided to make the city his home. There, he began to document his artistic interests. Meanwhile in the late 1940s, the photographer would study at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in photography and film. Subsequently, Stettner continued to move between the Big Apple and the City of Lights. He recorded his chance street encounters of citizens from both metropolises. While photographing the post-war recovery period in Paris, Stettner would befriend seminal photographers like Robert Doisneau, Brassaï, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Of these artists, Stettner would foster a close relationship with Brassaï, a celebrated street photographer. Above all, they would discuss the poetry of the everyday. Consequently, Stettner developed an aesthetic that mended American photography’s bold, gritty abrasiveness with the empathic, humanist vision of Parisian photographers. This aesthetic influenced his art practice significantly.
“For the rest of his life, he traveled between New York and Paris – his “two loves,” as he called them – constantly finding new inspiration in that geographical duality. From thoughtful images of rush-hour commuters to tranquil observations of daily routines, this thematic retrospective displays the remarkable breadth of Stettner’s work.” – San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Louis Stettner: Traveling Light, exhibition.
Brooklyn Promenade, Brooklyn
Moreover, in his famous Brooklyn Promenade photograph, Louis Stettner captures a man resting on a bench in a section of the Brooklyn promenade that overlooks the iconic NYC skyline. The image presents the expansive landscape of the city. It engulfs the background, with similar grandeur to the mountains and valleys of the works of Romanticism. The contrast created between man and the architecture of New York presents the immense landscape of the city against the human size of the sitter’s figure. Similarly the picture provides, imaginably, a contemporary iteration to the romantic movement.
The pose ultimately displays the sitter, with arms splayed, head thrust back, surrendering his body to the bench. Deep in reflection, the man lays with eyes closed and the landscape in front of him, perhaps dreaming of the endless possibilities that the city of New York offers.