“In reality, all we photographers photograph is ourselves in the other
— all the time” – Evelyn Hofer
Born in Marburg, Germany in 1922, Evelyn Hofer was a photographer, known for her sensitive portraiture, landscapes and still life. A keen pianist, she initially pursued this path, though after her application to the Paris Conservatory was rejected, she chose to focus on photography instead.
Apprenticing and taking private lessons with numerous photographers in both Basel and Zurich, including, Hans Finsler, one of the pioneers of the ‘New Objectivity’ movement, Hofer’s training covered both the technical and theoretical aspects of the medium, encompassing the theories of aesthetics as well as the chemical processes involved in producing prints.
In 1942, her family moved to Mexico, but it was her move to New York two years later that truly marked the beginning of her career as a photographer. Shortly after arriving, she caught the attention of renowned designer and photographer Alexey Brodovitch, who, at the time, was the art director of Harper’s Bazaar.
Brodovitch hired Hofer as an editorial photographer, which led to further commissions for numerous prestigious print magazines and newspapers including, Vogue and The New York Times.
In the mid-1950s, Hofer produced the imagery for Mary Mcarthy’s Stones of Florence, a literary examination of the Tuscan city’s history and culture. An important point in her career, Hofer would go on to collaborate with renowned authors such as V.S Prichett and Jan (James) Morris, producing similar books on other cities, including Dublin, Paris and Washington D.C. Her stunning images, perfectly capturing the essence of their subjects and display all the traits for which her work is now synonymous.
Unlike the dynamic, hand-held cameras favored by most of her contemporaries, Hofer primarily worked with a tripod-mounted, large-format camera, a process requiring considerable patience and attention. This is reflected in the sensitivity and stillness which define her work; her approach is a studied one, reminiscent of her compatriot, August Sander.
Her images are considered, but never contrived, maintaining a careful balance between the realism of documentary photography, and her own subjective vision.
Her stunning portraiture, the work for which she is perhaps best known, comprises a sociological cross-section, from gravediggers in Dublin resting on their shovels, to African American churchgoers in Harlem.
Hofer invariably photographed her subjects where she encountered them, in order to afford them a familiarly with their surroundings, and present them with quiet dignity, always striving to capture what she described as an “inside value, some interior respect”.
Her still life, which she began depicting more frequently in the 1970s, are truly remarkable works that display a masterful understanding of form, light, and color.
Ostensibly mundane objects assume profound significance which, when viewed through her lens, evoke the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish masters, indicative of the active interest in painting that she maintained throughout her life.
In fact, her interest in the medium informed much of her work; she once stated that the many painters with whom she formed a close friendship, “showed me how to look”.
In the 1960’s Hofer adopted the use of colour film, and of dye transfer printing, a complicated process, rarely utilized at the time.
She continued to work both in colour and monochrome almost up until her death in Mexico City, aged 87, although she remained a somewhat enigmatic figure, never garnering much personal fame during her lifetime. This led to renowned art critic Hilton Kramer deeming her: “the most famous unknown photographer in America”.
Evelyn Hofer’s work is available in a new collection titled Encounters and published by Steidl.
All images © The Estate of Evelyn Hofer