The 'eye of the Paris streets' photographer Sabine Weiss dies aged 97

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  • Robert Doisneau
    French photographer

Swiss-French photographer Sabine Weiss, who chronicled social change for nearly eight decades, has died aged 97 in her Paris home, her family said Wednesday. She was considered the last of the French 'humanist' photography school of post-World War II.

Born Sabine Weber on July 23, 1924, in Saint-Gingolph on the edge of Lake Geneva, she bought her first camera at the age of 12, and became an apprentice in a prestigious Geneva photo studio at 16.

She moved to Paris in 1946 and worked as an assistant to fashion and portrait photographer Willy Maywald. She became a French citizen in 1995.

She opened her own studio in 1950 in the 16th Arrondissement of the capital, finding work taking photographs for Le Printemps department store and for advertisments.

With her American husband, the painter Hugh Weiss, she spent time in artistic circles. She was commissioned for portraits of several well known artists of the time including Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti and Niki de Saint Phalle.

There were writers, musicians and actresses too such as Françoise Sagan, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, and Charlie Parker.

Globe trotter

Later, Robert Doisneau brought her onto the team of the iconic fashion magazine Vogue and into the Rapho photo agency, which opened doors to many opportunities in the United States.

She met and photographed many of the celebrities of the time, and travelled extensively.

Apart from Vogue, her media clients included Newsweek, Time, Life, Esquire and Paris Match.

"I've done everything in photography," she told French news agency AFP in 2020.

"I went into morgues and into factories, I took pictures of rich people and I took pictures of fashion," she said.

Stolen moments

"But what remains are the pictures I took for myself, in stolen moments," referring to a large body of her personal work, taken in black and white over the years.

She adored capturing scenes in the street, in the working class areas of Paris, the homeless people, lovers, and in particular, children.

For one her last major exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou in 2018, she put an emphasis on a more formal, technical aspect of her work, focusing on composition and contrasts.

"A good picture must move you, have a good composition and be sober," she told French daily La Croix. "People's sensitiveness must jump out at you."

Her work has featured in 160 exhibits and is shown in permanent collections of several leading museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

In 2017, Sabine Weiss donated 200,000 negatives and 7,000 contact sheets to the Elysee museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Golden age

"Next to her peers, Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, Sabine Weiss forged a humanist image of the city in the 1950s. She captured the solitude and melancholy of the streets, the children's games, and chic fashions in the studio. Her death signals the loss of the last witness of the golden age of Parisien photography," the statement on the Centre Pompidou website said.

"Thanks to our collections of this era, we will always have her images of New York, Paris, Moscow, a trace of her benevolent gaze upon the world."

Sabine Weiss won the Women in Motion career award at the Rencontres d'Arles in November 2020 for her contribution to photography.

"I've had a very, very happy life, very satisfying," she told the press at this occasion. "I had an adorable husband for 58 years (Hugh Weiss passed away in 2007) and a profession I loved, it's wonderful," she said.

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