Sabine Weiss — Sous le soleil de la vie

Exhibition

Photography

Sabine Weiss
Sous le soleil de la vie

Ends in 6 days: November 28, 2020 → January 30, 2021

When I had to choose a title for this exhibition, I wanted to highlight the character of Sabine Weiss. Sunshine, smile, energy, optimism, dedication… there is no lack of qualifiers. Temperament, too! In the Sunshine of Life soon became obvious because it summarizes quite well her appetence. As you will have understood, it is with great tenderness that we present at the gallery a new exhibition of Sabine Weiss, with well-known photographs, and some more unusual ones, and always composition and light as the key words.

Françoise Morin

There are objects everywhere in the little studio where she’s lived for over seventy years. On the walls there are paintings, reliquaries and an extravagant collection of ex-votos that climbs like a Virginia creeper on the silt of the staircase. Polished stones in front of the fireplace, sulphides on a shelf, a mortar with a hole in the bottom, a mummy mask… ‘I hoard stuff’, states Sabine Weiss. The large, round stone that seems to have two eyes came back with her from Egypt. She offered it to Hugh, her husband, who asked her everytime she returned from a trip, ’Did you bring a gift for me?’ She found the little Quran holder for him in Ramatuelle. She had the letters that were engraved in the silver translated: ’Let joy, happiness and love overtake you’.

Each thing here has its story, and each story is precious. Sabine sets the holder back on the tray on the chest of drawers, beneath the staircase. She looks at it and moves it a few millimetres. She squints ever so slightly to check it’s in the right place. ’Just yesterday, I was saying to myself, that’s enough now! I’m always composing’. It’s a habit she’s developed over many years since she’s become her eye.

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Sabine Weiss, Les lavandières, Bretagne, 1954 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

She has the same look as she leafs through the proofs for this book. But this time, she hasn’t left it up to others to choose the photos. She’s taken on the task, reviewing her entire life’s work. She stops, giving each image the affectionate attention that she grants to objects. ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I like that one a lot’. There are many reasons to like a photo: the model, the encounter, the story, the moment, the composition, the light, the miraculous convergence of all these elements. She sums up: ‘I like my photos a lot; I’m very sentimental’. Her smile is malicious, and obvious too. Pages are lying about on the low table, displaying the passage of time.

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Sabine Weiss, Valence, 1954 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

Sabine Weiss is ninety-six. She has been taking photographs since she was eleven. She began apprenticing at eighteen. She was a certified photographer at twenty-one. As a professional, she’s ‘done it all’ from babies to the dead, photographs of paintings, perfumes and cognac, the wealthy in their lovely homes, models striking every pose imaginable… She’s brought back photo-reports from the United States, Ethiopia, Portugal, Belfort, the USSR, India, Val-de-Marne… She’s printed portraits of artists, writers, painters, sculptors, singers, some of whom were her friends. She also photographed Jean Monnet and Dwight D. Eisenhower. She’s had prestigious clients, legendary magazines, well-known advertisers, a historic agency, in France and especially the United States. ‘I’ve done everything’, she repeats with an artisan’s pride, mixed with the quantity, diversity and difficulty of the work she’s tackled. (…)

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Sabine Weiss, New York, 1955 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

If she had to do it again, as she’s often confided, she would give up commissioned work. No fashion, no advertising. Photo-reports, strolls, encounters, that’s what she would do, exclusively. A life entirely devoted to the pleasure of seeing. ‘I delight in being obliged to look’, she says. A life of delight.

A fantasy. For how else can we free Sabine Weiss’ non-commissioned work from her life in constraints? How can we understand the singularity of her photographs, their integrity, their slightly rough quickness? Weiss pauses over one of them: ‘I like this one a lot. It’s very bad technically, but this gentleman leaning over to buy a sprig of lily of the valley for his kids…’ It is said that in order to free oneself so happily from technique, one really has to have mastered it. Sabine Weiss has practiced so much that she can see without seeing (everything). Her compositions defy clarity and blurriness, details, people crossing a field. ‘You can’t predict anything. You do what you can. We’re dependent upon chance. I like that’. (…)

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Sabine Weiss, Au salon des arts Ménagers, Grand Palais, Paris, 1956 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

Sabine Weiss has photographed many children. Professionally, she’s been asked to do so a lot, perhaps also because she’s a woman. But there’s something else. Everywhere she’s gone, from India to Saint-Cloud, she’s brought back portraits of children. Her photos are not particularly ‘cute’, nor even evocative. The children are represented raw, as full-fledged people, captured in their social, cultural, family truth. Funny or heart-rending, they exist as actors in the world. She remarks that, ‘I’m not too far from all that’, and it’s probably to the persistent vigour of her own childhood that she owes the integrity of her gaze. She knows like no one else how to photograph children because she is their equal.

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Sabine Weiss, Paris, 1949 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

Sabine Weiss does not recall ever being impressed by her models, even the most illustrious (‘Marshall Juin was very nice’). Yet she says, ‘Children don’t make you scared; they’re not going to smash your face’. Looking at her photos, she observes that ‘Many children, many elderly people, maybe they do more interesting things than adults’. Vagrants too, bums, gypsies, ‘simple’ people. ‘Working-class areas move me. They’re not pretentious. I don’t manipulate them’. She, who’s photographed so many of the world’s happy people for magazines, seems to find a form of peace and tenderness on the margins of triumphal, adult society. That’s where she pauses, moved by a gesture, an attitude. She chooses ‘people on the outside’, ‘people on their own’. ‘You know’, she adds, looking at her work, ‘it’s never very cheerful’.

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Sabine Weiss, Jardin Public, Paris, 1985 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

Sabine, who so heartily exists, says of her subjects, ‘Photographing a person means making them exist’. Less in the image itself than in the moment of sharing, when one offers her eyes and the other his gaze. Again and again, showing another photo, Sabine Weiss narrates a similar situation: ‘And her, she was so happy, she needed someone’. There is no hint of arrogance in this universal sympathy established as a method of approach. More like an inexhaustible jubilation, born from a shared vitality. Something like a joyous redemption, a double redemption, on both sides of the lens. ‘Maybe I’m kind deep down’, Weiss quips, with a naughty smile. ‘Maybe’.

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Sabine Weiss, Madrid, 1950 Gelatin silver print, printed later — 16 × 12 inches © Sabine Weiss / Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

‘Oh really? You’ve heard of me?’ Sabine asks, doubtfully. ‘I’m not that well known after all…’ When I object, she seems stunned. Then she closes the chapter murmuring, ‘Very well, very well. That’s great…’ She organises the proofs of the forthcoming book on the table in front of her. ‘These are Sabine Weiss’ choices. I included the photos that I like. I tried not to select well-known things’. She corrects herself: ‘Yes, all the same… I tried not to disappoint’.

— Marie Desplechin, excerpts from Émotions, published by Éditions de la Martinière, 2020

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  • Sabine Weiss