Eyes on the City: Photographer Evelyn Hofer’s Underrated Eloquence

Evelyn Hofer, American, born Germany (1922–2009). Bicycle Girl, in the Coombe, Dublin, 1966. Dye transfer print, 16 3/8 × 13 1/8 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2016.75.106. ©Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

In the middle of a Dublin Street, a girl straddles a bicycle too large for her small stature. She looks warily, even wearily, at the camera. Her lavender sweater and bright red socks stand out against the city’s sullen backdrop of brick and blacktop, set beneath a cloudy grey sky. The portrait, composed without dramatic contrivance and with keen attention to the atmosphere of place, records something of the child’s inner life as shaped by her social class and the city in which she lives.

The ability to recognize this relationship between people and their environments, and to render them with understated, formal brilliance, speaks to the immense talent of Evelyn Hofer, whose photographs will be featured in the exhibition Evelyn Hofer: Eyes on the City, opening Sept. 16 at the Nelson-Atkins and on view through Feb. 11, 2024. Co-organized with the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the show includes over 100 vintage photographs drawn from the museums’ collections and the artist’s estate. It focuses on Hofer’s most engaging works, images produced for a series of photobooks on European and American cities between 1959 and 1965. During a period of profound social and cultural change following World War II, Hofer made insightful, penetrating portraits, fastidious architectural and street views that collectively convey, on a human scale, the complexity and vibrancy of life in these changing urban spaces.

Evelyn Hofer, American, born Germany (1922–2009). Harlem Church, New York, 1964. Dye transfer print, 16 5/8 × 13 5/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2016.75.109. ©Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

Hofer, who passed away at age 87 in 2009, had a long and respected career as an editorial photographer, but art world recognition remained elusive during her lifetime. She certainly had admirers, including the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who hailed her “quality of pure observation” and “serene indifference to the accidental, the sordid, the trashy and the vulgar.” Most curators and critics showed less interest. “At the Museum of Modern Art,” Kramer observed with dismay, “not only has she never had an exhibition—she seems never to have been heard of.”

Those who did know Hofer and her work understood her talent. Celebrated contemporary photographers, including Thomas Struth, Rineke Dijkstra and Alec Soth have also acknowledged her influence. Wider recognition for Hofer’s achievements, however, has been a long time coming. Evelyn Hofer: Eyes on the City marks the first major exhibition of Hofer’s work in the United States in over 50 years.

Hofer worked in an antiquated manner that ran counter to the gritty, spontaneous style of street photography prevalent during the 1960s, a factor that contributed to her critical neglect. Unlike her peer Garry Winogrand, who took thousands of exposures of unwitting subjects with his handheld 35mm camera, Hofer worked with slow deliberateness, used a cumbersome large format 4 x 5 view camera and often scouted locations in advance. She had no interest in recording fleeting moments or chance encounters, as she once noted: “I do not take snapshots. No photographs of moments. That’s out of the question because I use a big camera.”

Hofer’s camera, which required a heavy tripod to steady and took time to set up, allowed her the opportunity to engage with her subjects and compose a scene with exquisite sensitivity to the colors, tones, textures, light and shadow. Hofer photographed without props or elaborate staging, relying instead on the camera’s capacity to render subjects with straightforward visual clarity. This approach was not always easy. As she once noted: “Painters are lucky. They can invent their reality. We photographers are slightly stuck with ‘what is there.’”

When Hofer did find something worth photographing, the results paid off. In Harlem Church, New York, 1964, for example, Hofer frames her view of three women dressed in their Sunday finery to emphasize the relationship between their colorful hats and dresses and the painted church window behind them. Legible behind the women is a sign that reads, “STOP LOOK,” an invitation for passersby to join the congregation, but also the impetus for the photographer herself.

The photobooks that Hofer made in collaboration with noted authors such as Mary McCarthy and V.S. Pritchett focused on the cities of Florence, London, New York, Washington, D.C., Dublin, and the country of Spain. Though perceived at the time as travel books (much to Hofer’s chagrin), the artistry of Hofer’s photographs stood apart from the writing, serving to complement rather than illustrate the texts. Adept in both black and white and color—well before figures like William Eggleston garnered recognition for their “pioneering” use of color materials in the mid-1970s—Hofer strove to get under the skin of a city in her photographs. Though she may have felt “slightly stuck with what is there,” Hofer managed time and again to turn everyday encounters into poetic records of time and place. She is finally getting the attention she deserves.

–April M. Watson, Senior Curator, Photography, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

CategoriesArts Consortium

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