One of the Best

American photographer Louis Stettner is one of the best regarded photographers of the postwar photography scene. Over the course of an eight-decade career, he refined his humanist approach to photography, capturing the activities of everyday life.

An Early Interest in Photography

Born in 1922, he received his first camera at the early age of thirteen as a gift. Throughout his teenage years, Stettner made regular visits to The Met and studied original prints from their archive as well as the back issues of Camera Work, the influential photography magazine. Particularly moved by the works of Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Clarence White, Stettner later contacted Strand to ask for a critique of his own work, which began a friendship that was to deepen and resume in Paris during the 50s. During his late teens, he took his first and only photography classes with the New York Photo League. He was enlisted in the army in 1941 where he served as a combat photographer. Upon his discharge from the army, Stettner returned to New York and resumed his association with the Photo League, assuming the teacher role. On his involvement with Photo League, he said;

“The League taught me that no matter how original and talented the photographer’s vision might be, the ultimate success of the photograph was mutually dependent on the photographer the world of reality around him…not to ignore but on the contrary, to concentrate his talents on everyday working people and what was immediately around him in terms of living and environment.”

5 Years in Paris

In 1947, Louis Stettner embarked on a journey to Paris intending to stay for just three weeks. However, captivated by the city’s charm and artistic allure, he found himself extending his stay to an unexpected five years. This trip was the beginning of what would be a long term love affair for the photographer. He had initially received a commission from the Photo League to gather prints from significant French photographers and organize the first exhibition of post-war French photography in the US. This was also the beginning of several friendships with fellow photographers such as Brassai; a figure Stettner considered his mentor.

Returning to New York

During the early 1950s, Stettner returned to New York and began working as a freelance photographer for LIFE, Time, Fortune and Paris-Match. He created some of his iconic series such as Penn Station, Nancy, The Beat Generation and Spanish Fishermen during this time. It was also when Stettner began to write about photography through his keen eye and knowledge on both the history and technique of the medium. He would continue to do so for the next 40 years. He became one of the rare photographers of the 20th century who critiqued the historical development of photography from the point of view of an actively working photographer.

A Poetic Photographer of the Streets

Throughout his prolific career behind the lens, Louis Stettner was known as a poetic photographer of the streets. Labelling his photography ‘humanist realism,’ he regarded the medium as a way of engaging with humanity. Stettner was a great observer of the passing scene; he captured life’s small moments of people and the streets. Stettner’s unique point of view also allowed him to merge the boldness of American street photography, with the softer humanistic characteristics of his Parisian contemporaries. It is in this geographical duality that Stettner often found inspiration. He referred to these 2 cities as his ‘Spiritual Mothers.’

Louis Stettner, Fifties Graffiti, 1954-1956, Silver gelatin photograph
Louis Stettner, Fifties Graffiti, 1954-1956, Silver gelatin photograph

Fifties Graffiti

One of the photographs from Stettner’s early work that present Stettner’s highly aesthetic and observational eye is Fifties Graffiti, dated 1954-56. The image shows two elegant dalmatians on the backseat of a convertible. Both looking at opposite directions, the way the dalmatians are situated seems to divide the composition symmetrically in half. David Campany describes Stettner’s photography as;

a wide visual appetite with great feeling for humans and their circumstances and deep affection simply by the appearance of things – for the way they looked to his eye, for the way they looked in photographs.”

The photograph is strong in composition, yet tender in feeling with its harmoniously blending tones and balanced hues. Stettner once said;

“An image is capable of being like life at its very best, moving us deeply without our knowing fully why.”

A Passion for Life and A Keen Intellect

Whether with his persona as a photographer or a writer, Louis Stettner is remembered with his passion for life and keen intellect. His tranquil observations of daily life in New York and Paris are considered to be examples of the humanist school of photography from the 20th century at its best. During the 1970s, Louis Stettner spent more time in New York City, where he taught at the Brooklyn College, Cooper Union and Queens College. From the 1980s onwards, Stettner focused on personal creative work and also began experimenting with other fields in art such as sculpture and drawing. Stettner received the medal of the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France in 2001, and his photographs were exhibited at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Centre Pompidou. He passed away on October 14, 2016 at the age of ninety-three in Paris.