The overlooked pioneer of street photography

text: Taka Kawachi

Winter/2015

In post-war American photography, there is one particular photobook widely recognized as the most important, a photobook that still influences photographers today: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’.
Published in the 1950s, Frank’s street photography differed from the photo-journalism and documentary style spearheaded by ‘LIFE’ and other magazines of that era. His personal approach in photographing the daily life of ordinary Americans was an experiment that helped advance the art of photography beyond commonly held conceptions of the time.

But there was another photographer who captured American streetlife in a similar fashion to Frank, and he did it more than ten years before Frank began shooting The Americans in 1955. His name was Louis Farrer. He and Robert Frank were close friends, almost like brothers — they even shared the same darkroom to develop their photographs. They influenced each other and eventually ushered in a new era of street photograph.

Robert Frank, who moved to New York from Switzerland, and Louis Faurer, who came from Philadelphia, met in New York in 1947. They began a deep friendship that lasted throughout their lives. Faurer possessed a masterful photographic skill, even earning him words of praise from Walker Evans. He once summarised his method in the following way (with the modesty of a true master): ‘The perfect technique is one that your subject will never notice.’ It is easy to imagine that Robert Frank, eight years Fauer’s junior, learned a lot from his excellent skill and artistic sense.

Louis Faurer photo collection (front cover: “5th Ave. New York, 1948”) and ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank. Faurer even had an influence upon Diane Arbus. The famous image of twins taken by Arbus was inspired by Faurer’s own work of twins taken 19 years previously. ©DR

To give one example, Faurer’s photograph of the Times Square at night, an image even lauded by William Klein, was very difficult to achieve with contemporary photographic equipment and which justly deserves its recognition as a photograph that was ahead of its time.
Further, the image of the photobook cover above immediately draws up comparisons with Diane Arbus’ famous photographs of twins. But Faurer was there 20 years earlier.

Although he left behind wonderful photographs expressing his own aesthetics, why has Faurer failed to achieve a greater popularity, at least in his own country America? Perhaps it was because he did not publish any decisive photobooks during his lifetime, as Robert Frank did, or because his photography lacked the original novelty of Klein’s or Weegee’s. But there is no doubt that Faurer’s images from the 1940s and 1950s possess a quality that surpasses the constraints of time.

Times Square, New York, 1948 In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the lights and shadows of the streets of New York were captured through the masterful and excellent sense of Louis Faurer (1916-2001). ©DR

In any case, when I consider that at the roots of a famous work like “The Americans” lies the influence of a mostly unknown master photographer, it brings up a rare, special feeling.

Taka Kawachi

Studied at San Francisco Art College after high school, moved to New York and curated exhibitions and edited photography collections. He returned to Japan in 2011. He has recently published two books with writings about art and photography in Europe and America (not yet available in English).

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