Louis Stettner “My way of life, my very being is based on images capable of engraving themselves indelibly in our inner soul’s eye.”

Born in 1922 in Brooklyn and died in 2016 in Paris, Louis Stettner is one of the masters of 20th century American photography. His name is discreetly present in history books despite the richness of his photographic work. With one foot on every continent: from New York to Spain, via France and Mexico, the work of Louis Stettner occupies a unique place in the history of photography.

Originally from an Austrian Jewish family, the young Stettner learned photography at the age of fifteen with a Kodak Brownie camera offered by his parents. During his adolescence, he regularly visited the reading room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and trained his gaze by consulting the photographs kept in the reserves. In 1939, he took photography lessons and perfected his knowledge of the medium at the Photo League, a group that brought out a large generation of photographers, including Berenice Abbott and Sid Grossman.

When he arrived in Paris in 1946 after having been a photographer for the American army during the Second World War, Stettner worked with a strong penchant for the style of Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand or Weegee. Living in Paris between 1946 and 1952, he has a clear filiation with French humanist photographers: Édouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau and Izis. Gradually, he moves away from his elders and develops a unique style using a large-format view camera. Thanks to his mastery of the snapshot, he eloquently documents post-war Paris: a young woman sitting on the terrace of a café  in Pigalle, the banks of the Seine and the monuments of the city.

About his years in Paris, Louis Stettner recalls in his text Paris Revisited (1971): “Perhaps the most important thing was the generous friendship of older photographers. There were weekly visits to Brassaï: his little apartment in the rue Saint-Jacques was filled with objects found at the flea market: unusual objects, which were neither antiques nor curiosities, but rather historical objects which testified to the life around them (a bit like his photographs of graffiti on the walls) [...] If you showed him your own photographs, he would start by expressing his appreciation, then he would offer only the necessary criticisms. Technically, Louis Stettner does not seek the innovation of the medium in his work but he subtly takes up the questions of his time: the relationship to the norm and to the margins, the link between people and their urban environment.
Stettner returned to New York in 1952 and taught at Long Island University in the 1970s. At the same time, he was active in the press and his photographs were published in renowned magazines such as Life, Paris Match or Time. The play of light in his New York series from the 1950s and 1980s plunges us back intensely into the urban frenzy of a city in turmoil. He gives his city portraits a personal tone as in his famous photograph Manhattan from the Brooklyn Promenade (1954). Due to his sensitivity, his photographic writing is characterized by a deep lyricism as evidenced by his images of New York under the snow.

In 1990, Louis Stettner moved with his wife to the Parisian suburb of Saint-Ouen and he received the medal of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2001. In 2016, the Center Pompidou dedicated a retrospective to him of scale accompanied by an exhibition catalog published by Xavier Barral editions. The curator of the exhibition Clément Chéroux comments on Louis Stettner (Code Couleur, n°25, May-August 2016, pp. 38-39): “A street in Paris at dawn, a ray of light between two skyscrapers in New York, reflections on the wet asphalt. There is an atmospheric quality to Louis Stettner's images that is not seen anywhere else in the history of photography in the second half of the 20th century. Beyond his attention to luminous epiphanies, the photographer also knows how to capture, with incomparable acuity, what makes a being look like: the rhythm of walking on city sidewalks, the abandonment of a body on a public bench, the precise gesture of the worker, etc. »

Throughout his career, Louis Stettner has carried out sensitive and committed visual investigations through his incessant exchanges on both sides of the Atlantic. His photographs are now kept in the greatest American institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In France, his work was presented for the first time in 1949 at the National Library of France — to which he donated 70 proofs and 2 portfolios in 1975-1976 — then a second time in 2012. In 2013, the Center Pompidou has purchased around thirty works by Louis Stettner. The American photographer then designated the Parisian museum as the place to host his work, and donated around a hundred vintage prints to the institution, a donation supplemented by seven other works including the only model of the book project from 1956, Pepe & Tony, two fishermen from Ibiza, acquired thanks to the generosity of Hervé and Etty Jauffret. The exceptional set presented here of 34 signed silver prints comes directly from the artist's studio and is distinguished by its number and the quality of its proofs.

Isabella Seniuta, doctor in contemporary art history, photography specialist