Timeless portraits by ‘the most famous unknown photographer in America’

Timeless portraits by ‘the most famous unknown photographer in America’

Whether photographing gravediggers in Dublin or Andy Warhol at The Factory, Evelyn Hofer captured a person’s essential qualities that went beyond the moment.

While penning a glowing review of photographer Evelyn Hofer (1922–2009) for the New York Times in 1982, art critic Hilton Kramer recognised that he was dealing with the work of “the most famous unknown photographer in America.”

Four decades later, Hofer’s life and legacy are finally receiving their proper due in her first UK solo exhibition, Evelyn Hofer, now at The Photographers Gallery. Bringing together over 110 works, books, and ephemera made over 45 years, the show explores the Hofer’s masterful use of the 4x5 view camera to create timeless portraits, still lifes and landscapes.

Hailing from Germany, Hofer’s family fled the Nazis in 1933, eventually settling in Mexico City where the she began working as a professional photographer. Seeking her fortune, Hofer decamped for New York in 1946 and quickly became immersed in the city’s thriving post-war art scene.

After getting her start at Harper’s Bazaar, Hofer discovered her passion for long-form work when she collaborated with novelist and activist Mary McCarthy on the 1959 travel book, The Stones of Florence

“What interested her about Florence was the aura of the eternal that emanated from the ancient walls, which over time had become a silent witness to history,” says curator and owner of Galerie M, Susanne Breidenbach. “She blanked out the elements of the ephemeral, modern world such as cars. In this way, her images capture what remains over time. The search for the essential, for that which is inherent in a thing or a person beyond the momentary, also characterises her later photographs.”

Top to bottom: Harlem Church, New York, 1964 © Estate of Evelyn Hofer Courtesy Galerie m, Bochum, Germany. Soldier in Uniform with Girlfriend, New York, 1974 © Estate of Evelyn Hofer Courtesy Galerie m, Bochum, Germany.

No longer constricted by the limits of studio photography, Hofer immersed herself in real life, embarking on a journey that would take her around the world to cities like Paris, Washington, Dublin and London, as well as Spain and Italy. Unlike her contemporaries, Hofer pursued a “slow” approach that was more akin to painting than the more popular “point-and-shoot” technique of the era.

“She did not experiment with chance or photograph from the hip like most photojournalists at the time. In fact, quite the opposite,” says Breidenbach. “She meticulously prepared the moment of the shot and photographed exclusively with a large-format plate camera. She converted her colour photographs using the dye transfer noble print process, a photographic technique that is no longer available today.”

Breidenbach points to Hofer’s all-embracing care, which she brought to both the process and the subject matter at hand. Whether photographing gravediggers in Dublin, an inmate Parkhurst Prison, Andy Warhol at The Factory, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington D.C., Hofer imbued a profound sense of beauty, dignity and honour to all she encountered.

Girl, Barcelona, 1963 © Estate of Evelyn Hofer Courtesy Galerie m, Bochum, Germany.

“Hofer was always interested in the meaning of life and the role someone played in it,” says Breidenbach. “She ruled out any form of manipulation in her approach and instead strove for transparency. Although Hofer's portraits are deeply personal, they never expose. Rather, they show a deep respect for the subject.”

Evelyn Hofer is on show at The Photographers Gallery London until 24th September 2023.

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