Photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1965 showing a person wearing military uniform and a helmet resting on a long motorbike on grass in front of a pink blossom tree

Evelyn Hofer’s gentle take on street photography

A new show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London is spotlighting the German-American imagemaker, who has been praised for her considerate handling of people and places

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.

Photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1966 showing a young girl wearing a grey skirt and knee high red socks, who is tiptoeing over an adult sized bicycle frame in a residential street in Dublin
Top: Springtime, Washington, 1965; Above: Girl with Bicycle, Dublin, 1966. All images © Estate of Evelyn Hofer, courtesy Galerie m, Bochum, Germany
Black and white photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1962 showing four warehousemen and a foreman wearing hats or caps, wide trousers and jackets, in front of brick factory buildings
Warehousemen and Foreman, London, 1962

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.

Black and white photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1963 showing a young woman looking off camera, wearing a knee length pleated skirt, a V-neck long sleeved top, and a tall bouffant hairstyle
Girl, Barcelona, 1963
Black and white photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1962 showing a child wearing a striped t-shirt and shorts sat on a windowsill next to an overturned pram, with another child looking through net curtain windows in the background
Notting Hill Gate, London, 1962

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.

Black and white photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1975 showing a wooden chair with arms next to a smaller wooden chair against an ornate artificial backdrop
Two Chairs, London, 1975
Photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1997 showing a bowl of lemons on the left, and a wicker bowl of oranges against a dark background
Hommage à Zurbarán (Still Life No. 6), New York, 1997

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.

Photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1964 showing a young person wearing a red t-shirt and dark trousers, resting on the seat of a bicycle on the grass in front of Queensboro Bridge
Queensboro Bridge, New York, 1964
Black and white photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1965 showing four secretaries wearing long wide skirts, three of which are sat on a park bench, and one is stood behind
Secretaries in Rawlings Park, Washington, 1965
Photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1974 showing a soldier in uniform stood next to his girlfriend wearing white trousers and a white and purple floral blouse
Soldier in Uniform with Girlfriend, New York, 1974
Photograph by Evelyn Hofer from 1965 showing the back end of a a row of 60s cars parked in front of New York skyscrapers
Car Park, New York, 1965

Evelyn Hofer runs at the Photographers’ Gallery, London until September 24;