Evelyn Hofer

Staged spontaneity

When August Sander, who apprenticed as a miner, published his opus magnum “People of the 20th Century” at the end of the 1920s in several volumes under different titles, few people could have guessed that his portraits of groups and individuals would one day go down in photographic history as one of the most significant bodies of work. The innovativeness of his project combined with the old-fashioned presentation of his subjects as representatives of a stratified society exerted an immense influence on the work of later photographers from Diane Arbus to Alec Soth. What all these artists have in common is their ability to skilfully blend staged photography with a more informal approach to their subjects as a way of protecting their characteristics and gestures.

This delicate balance between the guiding hand of the photographer and the freedom of the individual is also evident in Evelyn Hofer’s portraits: Her subjects choose whether to smile or look serious, fold their arms or let them hang loosely by their side in a more relaxed pose. The photographer, who worked in Europe and America, took pictures of children as well as men and women from different professions and social backgrounds for magazines like Vogue, New York Times Magazine and GEO. Hofer also collaborated on book projects with various authors, developing comprehensive photographic portraits of cities like Dublin, Florence, London, New York and Washington.

Besides portraits, she was also proficient in other major genres such as landscape photography, interiors and still lifes, often arranging the flowers and fruit in a similar way to the people she portrayed. Her visual language reveals a distinct sense of form, color and space, and yet she always respected her subjects’ “natural” environment. Whether on the football pitch, on the street or in a park, it is clear that the people Hofer captured with her large-format camera mounted on a tripod with a dark cloth at the back are in their familiar surroundings.

And so we seem to have come full circle from Sander’s portraits of people in the Weimar Republic to Evelyn Hofer’s motifs: Similar to Sander’s young farmers with their walking sticks and starched collars or the pastry chef with his mixing spoon and bowl, Hofer’s protagonists also pose proudly in knee socks, with a bicycle, in football shirts or on a police motorcycle – unspectacular everyday attributes that only unfold their magic in the photograph.

Biographical information

1922

born in Marburg, Germany

1933

emigrates with her family to escape Nazism, first to Geneva, Switzerland and later to Madrid, Spain

1936–1941

returns to Switzerland with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War;
attends the École international de Genève and trains in photography in Zürich and Basel, later taking private lessons with Hans Finsler in Zürich

1942

moves with her family to Mexico

1946

immigrates to New York City

1947

begins working as a freelance photographer for, among others, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue

early 1960s

becomes one of the first fine art photographers to adopt the use of colour film and the dye transfer printing process

1994

first retrospective exhibition at the Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland

2009

dies in Mexico City, Mexico