July 2005

“ I am a story-teller,” says Erich Lessing: his stories, as displayed both in a book and exhibition, cover 25 years and as many countries. His photographs are a notebook where day by day he has jotted his careful observations.

Their emotional range is wide, as Lessing is a keen observer of the human comedy: in “Refreshments at the ball”, a woman in 1953 Vienna is greedily gobbling sausages; in a Doisneau-like photograph taken in Paris in 1954 (“I want to read too”) a man seen from the back leans over to read someone else’s newspaper. He can also be a sharp observer of social inequities: he photographs diners at restaurants with lavishly appointed tables but also a woman rooting for food through garbage, and another selling newspapers in the bitter cold, her feet in straw boots.

Though not a war photographer, Lessing has been a witness to the tragic: his images of the short-lived 1956 Hungarian Revolution made him famous. I remember in particular the image of a lynched man of the AOV , Budapest Secret Police. His body hangs from a tree like meat from a hook. The image shocks not only because of the sheer brutality of the scene but because as our gaze shifts from the victim to the crowd we realize that killing the man was not enough of a revenge: they are spitting on his body.

[ Click above to view works ]

Lessing is sympathetic to the Revolution, evident from the way he captured in other photographs the happy crowds burning pictures of Communist leaders and propaganda material. But he draws the line at murder.

He does not believe that photographs can change the world and does not wish them to be weapons of propaganda. He keeps a difficult balance: being empathetic with his characters but also able to step back from the scene into dispassionate contemplation. This quality reminds me of David Seymour who, while siding with the Spanish Civil War Loyalists, did not hesitate to show their acts of vandalism, such as destroying medieval statues of saints in churches.

Seemingly spontaneous, Lessing’s compositions are based on the way he positions himself and his ability to project several steps ahead in a situation. Several of his pictures are taken from a high vantage point, like his often-reproduced portrait of General de Gaulle. “Building an Ocean ship, Northern England, 1958,” functions through the balanced geometry of interlocking pieces of steel and that of the white letters inscribed on metal. In “Vienna Opera Ball, 1960” dresses swirl like corollas, tuxedos are butterflies, and their pairing conveys the giddy joy of a special night. In a 1958 shot of school children in Moscow Lessing caught the moment where, together with the trees, the subjects form a perfect lozenge, with three children staring at the camera and the other looking away, all stopped in mid-walk. In “Narrow Street in Bergen, 1954” a minuscule silhouette stands in a pool of light under the thin tunnel between roofs, under the enormous wooden facades that plunge into darkness.

Of the many aspects of Lessing’s vast talent the photographs that go beyond the political and the anecdotal, beyond the moment, and become a meditation on time, are especially touching: for example, twin pictures of the Stalin monument in Budapest taken in summer and in October of 1956. In the second image, the garlands and the Stalin statue have been torn down. Somehow these two photographs sum up the Hungarian Revolution better than any action shots.

Some photographers have an obsession that is made visible in every single image they shoot: Diane Arbus comes to mind, or Joel-Peter Witkin. Others would prefer that we do not just focus on their photographs but examine the world through them. They only hope that we might feel what they have experienced: the tenderness, the irony, the horror, and the amazement.

In the tradition of Erich Salomon but often with poetry akin to André Kertész, Lessing defines himself as a “pessimistic optimist.” He is one of those rare photographers who does not impose his own mold but, through his images, lets appearances speak. It is this very modesty and lightness of being that define his style, a word that he might resent as much as he resents the term “artist.”

-- Carole Naggar

Erich Lessing’s photographs can be seen at:
the Leica Gallery
670 Broadway
On view until August 6.

“Erich Lessing: Reportage Photography 1948-1973” will be available in September from The Quantuck Lane Press, 2005  www.quantucklanepress.com