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March 11 - May 8, 2004 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen

"The Decisive Moment" was a phrase coined by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to explain how successful photographs combined content and composition. It was a skill to be able to make a photograph at the right time, to capture an event as well as to be able to present that event with compositional grace and sophistication. Numerous photographers making images in the streets of Europe and the United States became known for their ability to make photographs that captured that decisive moment. Louis Faurer photographed the streets of New York and Philadelphia after World War II. His black and white images present the energy of urban life. He documented people going about their daily activities unaware of his presence, as well as those who looked directly into his lens.

Faurer, born in 1916, began as a freelance graphic artist in Philadelphia. He bought his first camera in 1937, and soon after launched his career as a fashion and editorial photographer. Although he worked for magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle and Glamour, it was his personal work done in the city streets for which he is remembered. Faurer’s work can be seen in relation to other photographers working in the mid-20th century who were interested in documenting the city around them: Helen Leavitt, Max Yavno, Robert Doisneau, Lisette Model, Andre Kertesz and, of course, Cartier-Bresson. He was influential to a younger generation of photographers that included Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, who also made visual poetry out of the chaos of the urban environment.

"Twin Sisters, New York,"
1948, gelatin silver print.

"Garage, Park Avenue, New York,"
1950, gelatin silver print.

"Win, Place, Show, New York,"
1946, gelatin silver print.

Among his most well known images is Twin Sisters, New York (1948). In this image identical adult twins with horn-rimmed glasses and print shirts fill the bottom half of the frame. They look out past the camera’s lens, as if unaware they are being photographed. Behind them two men are caught staring at them from behind. The tall buildings that line the city street recede in the distance. Faurer is not making fun of these woman but rather presenting them as an anomaly. While Twin Sisters is about the personas of the twins, most of Faurer’s images are taken from a distance.

His images are full of shadows and silhouettes. He was interested in how the people and the buildings within the city could fuse within the photographer’s frame. For example in 3rd Ave El looking toward Tudoe City, Reflection in the Window, NY (1947), he presents the shadow and the silhouette of the same man. We never see the person’s appearance, only his repeated shadow reflected in the window, among the towering facades. Similarly in Win, Place, Show, NY (1946) Faurer captures two silhouettes caught in the angular shadows of a stairway.

Faurer’s urban images document and evoke a specific time and place. In Garage, Park Avenue (1950) old cars whose chrome shimmers in the evening light spark a sense of nostalgia. Similarly, his pictures of theater and movie marquees present a very different image from contemporary New York’s 42nd Street. These ironically juxtapose advertising signage with the hustle and bustle on the streets below.

Faure’s black and white images represent the urban environment as a gritty place in constant flux. This city is a place to be celebrated though, full of discovery and surprise. As he stated, "My eyes search for people who are grateful for life, people who forgive and whose doubts have been removed, who understand the truth, whose enduring spirit is bathed by such piercing white light as to provide their present and future with hope."

Although Faurer is best known for the black and white images from the 1940s, '50s and '60s that make up this exhibition, he continued to make images (even some in color) for another twenty years. His career was tragically cut short by a bus accident in 1984 from which he never really recovered. He died in New York City in 2001. Considered a photographer’s photographer, Louis Faurer was less interested in a high profile gallery career than in making meaningful images. After his death, his work was celebrated by a retrospective exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston that traveled to many museums in the United States, concluding in Philadelphia, Faurer’s home town.

While his stature does not place him among the front rank of photographers of his generation, Faurer did make important contributions to post-war photography, and his body of work provides inspiration and wields an influence over those who gravitate toward images of the urban environment.