The late German-American photographer Evelyn Hofer is the focus of a retrospective at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. It covers her 45-year career in photography that was somewhat overlooked by the art world in her lifetime, having never had a museum show in the US despite living there for much of it.
Hofer became known for travelling to create work, a state of transience that mirrors her own beginnings. Born in Marburg, a town near Frankfurt, in 1922, her family left Nazi Germany in 1933 and settled in Switzerland, followed by Spain, and eventually Mexico (where she returned to live later in life), before setting off for the US.
Like most working photographers who made their way to New York towards the middle of the 20th century, Hofer cut her teeth on commissions for magazines, working primarily with Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Her photo essays later appeared in publications like Time and the New York Times Magazine.
Her propensity for combining travel and imagemaking can be traced back to her collaboration with novelist and political activist Mary McCarthy, whose book on Florentine art, history, and culture, The Stones of Florence, was punctuated by Hofer’s images. This was followed by travel books with other writers like VS Pritchett and Jan Morris, guiding her lens around Dublin, Paris, and Washington, among others.
These books appear in the exhibition, along with 110 of Hofer’s photographs, a mixture of colour and black and white. Her colour photographs are relatively unusual in that she used a dye transfer process in the mid-1970s that few others did at the time.
Hofer’s eye for architectural details and structures carried through to her portraits, which seem to give as much attention to people’s surroundings as the subject themselves, turning bridges, residential streets, and skyscrapers into characters of their own. Her still life photographs are similarly imbued with depth and care.
Street photography and travel photography are increasingly raising ethical questions, with many photographers undergoing a reappraisal in recent years. Hofer has been praised by comparison for her approach that favoured a slower pace, more consideration, and a sense of collaboration with the people who lent themselves to her portraits. She was known to spend long periods wandering around places, having encounters with people, and studying the light, often only reaching for her large format camera on subsequent visits.
It’s difficult to know how the individuals featured actually felt about her work. Yet it’s true that they often appear proud or poised, sometimes even smiling. Even when their expressions reveal very little, the details that Hofer managed to pick out in both people and the environments around them are testament to the time she took with those she met – a rare phenomenon in the ‘grab and go’ world of street photography.
Evelyn Hofer runs at the Photographers’ Gallery, London until September 24; thephotographersgallery.org.uk