Photographic memory


Experts in the history of photography have traced the link between the direct political photography of Walker Evans and the emotion-laden images of Robert Frank to a lesser-known photographer, Louis Faurer of South Philadelphia.

Faurer, who died only two years ago, was prominent in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s as a fashion photographer for stylish New York magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Flair and Mademoiselle. The style of photography being discussed is a straightforward narrative approach that was practiced by a likeminded and trained cadre known as the Philadelphia Group, who ironically learned and polished their craft here but became famous in New York — home of the fashion magazines that supplied their livelihood.

Now, some 100 of Faurer’s shots of the streets and high fashion comprise a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Louis Faurer: A Photographic Retrospective" will run through Sept. 7. Appropriately enough, the exhibition comes with a marvelous catalogue that places Faurer within the context of the history of photography and takes a comprehensive look at his entire career.

The catalogue and the resurrection of Faurer’s reputation are due to Anne Wilkes Tucker, who authored the book in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which organized the show. Katherine Ware, the curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, noted, "It is fitting for this comprehensive retrospective of Louis Faurer’s remarkable career to conclude its national tour in his hometown of Philadelphia, where he forged his style as an artist. His work is gritty and edgy, but always sympathetic. He interpreted his subjects with a moving combination of tenderness and humor, the qualities that his friend and colleague Robert Frank regards as the key ingredients in Faurer’s photography."

Faurer was born in Philadelphia and graduated from South Philadelphia High School for Boys in 1934. He was artistic and liked to draw from an early age, and after high school went to work sketching caricatures on the Atlantic City boardwalk. In 1937, he bought a camera from a friend and, within a few months, had produced a photograph that depicted a small boy under a row of trombones on Cantrell Street. It won a prize from the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger and convinced Faurer to forge a career in photography.

Largely self-educated, he had studied commercial lettering and had worked painting advertising signs and lettering posters. He took a brief military course in photography and also had experience working as a technician in several portrait studios. By and large, Faurer learned by doing.

He took to the streets of Philadelphia and became the portraitist of the poor and of street people. Part of his technique was a close emotional tie to the physicality of the subject with a distance perspective that allows for a certain detachment. Much of his later work would have the same characteristics and allow him to present subjects without prejudicing the viewer. His is not a judgmental art.

His major artistic influences came from friends who studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of the Industrial Arts (now the University of the Arts) whose teacher was Alexey Brodovitch, a legendary art director for major magazines in New York. Skills developed and honed in Philadelphia were exported to New York, where young artists such as Faurer could continue their art and earn a living doing fashion and journalistic photography for major national magazines.

Faurer worked quickly with a small camera that allowed him to get up close to his subjects, and he would work through the night taking pictures and through the day developing his own prints in a studio he shared with Frank.

Ironically, the self-taught Faurer was a master of technique — and fearless when it came to using double exposures, sandwiched negatives, reflections and choice of film. Since he did his own darkroom work, he could experiment until he got exactly the effect he was seeking. His perfectionist nature and the end results could be seen as contradictory; however, the sometimes soft, blurry images he produced were deliberate and evocative of much of the mood of a postwar America.

A new generation of photographers, critics and dealers began to rediscover Faurer in the 1980s, and a number of important exhibitions were staged. By then, he was teaching, exhibiting, publishing and selling his work. He suffered severe injuries when a car struck him as he exited a bus. He died in New York in 2001.

Louis Faurer:
A Photographic Retrospective

Through Sept. 7
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street and
Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Adults, $10; seniors (62+), $7; students with valid ID, $7; ages 13-18, $7; 12 and under, free;
Sundays, pay what you wish