“ 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.
above to view works ]
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
On view until August 6.
“Erich Lessing: Reportage Photography 1948-1973”
will be available in September from The Quantuck Lane Press,