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ausgabe #49. kolumne. evelyn schalk. übersetzung: mark kanak

the tightrope walker behind the camera

 Erich Lessing

The photographer Erich Lessing is a man who has photographed so many personalities in politics and the arts throughout his career that merely attempting to compile a list would fill pages. His pictures of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 went around the world, and his photos of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty found their way into the collective memory of Austrians everywhere. He was a much sought-after set-photographer in Hollywood productions like "Moby Dick" or "The Sound of Music", but he has also published extensive art books about institutions such as the Louvre and the British Library. As a member of Magnum Photos, he left his own significant mark on the "century of the reporting" and his images still undiminishingly have an unmistakably profound effect upon those who see them—all-the-more convincing if one has the opportunity to visit his recently opened Vienna gallery.

In talking with Erich Lessing, you have to take care to perceive the little things, the subtle nuances of his facial expressions, listen very attentively and choose your words wisely. He's not a man who speaks lightly, but rather insists on precision, both in his own statements and those of others. Clearly, Lessing is not someone who thinks he has to respond with valid answers to all questions. "I know I shrug my shoulders too much, but I really don't have much to say on a lot of things." A shrug of the shoulders that leaves opportunity for response, and yet wants to provide it, as well.

Reporting, chronicles, documentation, wherever you encounters his photographs, they all have one thing in common: They are more than just a precise capture of a moment in time. They are never indifferent and also don't lend the impression that they are, but deal directly with the events(s) , exposing them and taking a stand, addressing those confrontations of situations, of human action and of decision-making processes.

But "What is the situation? What will be remembered? "asks Lessing. Yes, he also asks questions in interviews, not least of all of himself. "There's little to tell, or a lot. Life consists of many tiny stones in a mosaic that when one talks about them, or writes them down, only have meaning for the storyteller himself. " But it is precisely at this point where contextualisation is required, without which no photo, no text, no artwork can exist.

"History as such provides meaning to the meaningless" - the reporting-book "Vom Festhalten der Zeit" (On Capturing Time) begins with this quote of Theodor Lessing. But where does history begin? Erich Lessing comes from a Jewish family, almost all of whom perished in the Holocaust. His mother was murdered in Auschwitz, his grandmother in Theresienstadt, while he himself managed to flee to Palestine.

Coming back to Vienna  in 1947, he later took one of the pictures which, one might almost say, iconographically justified the self-image of Austria: the famous photo is not of the signing itself, but rather the presentation of the State Treaty on the balcony of Schloss Belvedere, which to this day can be found in all Austrian history books. History books in which so many of the crimes of National Socialism that preceded this scene, suppressed for decades, were ignored, excluded or distorted, and which in part still do so.

Initially, for Lessing, the return to Vienna was not a kind of beginning, or a new start, but rather an encounter with an almost unimaginable emptiness. Can you come back to a place where no one you once knew is anymore? Asking such a question was difficult for me as an interviewer because I can only imagine how much it all still pains him, even today. "Coming back is certainly not easy. The city is deserted. All that remains are the ruins, sometimes positive, for the most part negative." A city and its inhabitants. "The city itself has also changed, of course, some of it has been destroyed, some of it looking just as it did before – but it was not the same. It was not necessarily hostile, it was not particularly friendly, it was completely neutral. And the people in it were actually just like this – divided into friendly, hostile, and very many neutral."

On the question of tolerability, he answers directly: "Yes. One can separate them, sure." For Lessing, now as then, it remained the same: "If you come to cities where you've never been, there are friendly towns, and others [that are not]. Just today I was in Marburg, where we have an exhibition, which is a small, friendly city. The thing about it: the people are friendly, you don't see yourself as an intruder, so to speak. There are big cities where one has the feeling when arriving that the city itself is shining. Or there are very large cities that are friendly. Berlin is a friendly city, Paris is a neutral city, which you have to conquer, London is more of a repellent city, New York is open...."


A tailor in Vienna, 1954.

Asked about the State Treaty photos and the ability they seem to possess of projecting a common identity, he replied after a short pause: "It's very hard to speak about it. A feeling that you have today is certainly not comparable with a feeling of, after all, more than 70 years ago. I mean, you try to evoke it, but to bring it out again – difficult." The more you listen to Erich Lessing speak, the more you come to understand that he has his own, unique approach, a very deliberate one, walking a fine line between the private pain and the need to provide public answers.

It soon becomes clear that Lessing does not lump individuals and institutions into one group or the other, nor care much for abstract statements that ultimately remain just a facade, but rather firmly makes judgments and evaluations based on actual people and their individual behavior.

Lessing felt the circle to which he had suddenly gained access shortly after his return to Vienna in 1947 to be "pleasant and cultured", including people such as Fritz Wotruba, Hans Weigel, Fritz Molden and Ernst Häussermann – according to Lessing, something of a "theatre company", but one "in which one could live." For in fact, he had come "not at all with the intention of remaining, but rather to see what the situation was, to look at the past, if anyone had survived that you had hoped would have survived." In this city that was "just seeking a new form of life, a new urban culture", he did not feel a "stranger", but "not that he belonged, either"; much rather, it seemed more of "an intermediate stage".


An old woman in the reading room of the
Austrian National Library. Vienna, 1953.

But as much as not generalizing or pigeonholing individuals corresponds to Lessing's attitude, so too does he view the responsibility of external circumstances that influence people in their actions. These interactions are the subject of his pictures, which serve so well to demonstrate the complexity of the dependency of the individual and relationships. Paradoxes often become starkly apparent – and these are often highly political.

Socialist realism: a happy peasant family on their tractor.
Village in Nova Huta, Poland, 1956.

Erich Lessing has been a member of the famous Magnum photo agency for decades and his deeply humanistic conviction characterizes his work, even if he values the power of the individual image far less today than in previous years, or, to be precise, has actually negated this point of view entirely. Limitations shape the behavior of people to a much greater extent than each image might reveal. "We are still looking for the same solutions to the same questions. Clearly has much changed, and not only in photography; the analog has become digital, nevertheless, everyone is [photographers are] still behind the camera and not in front of it."

A street sweeper taking a break.
Belgrade, 1952


Elsewhere we read Lessing having said that even if some particular action taken may not ultimately help mitigate a situation, it still needs to happen. "This is not just a way of life, but also the story behind each report, which I argue certainly neither affects the general level of consciousness of the population nor that of the political class sitting behind the levers of power, because very different factors are present – connections of money, economy and power. […] But you still have to show that, not only because one is present, but also has this camera along." In direct connection to the issue of objectivity: "There is none. […] You are always selective and therefore you interject your own personality and what you see is filtered by your aversion, or affection."


A boy from the country tries to earn some
money with his violin. Belgrade, 1952.

Over the course of decades, Lessing has had so many larger-than-life personalities in front of his camera, from politics to the arts: from Charles de Gaulle to Herbert von Karajan, from Robert Kennedy to Gregory Peck. He photographed Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Golda Meir as well as Oskar Kokoschka and Anthony Quinn.


Herbert von Karajan inspecting a new jet trainer at the
Lucerne Pilatus-Werke. Switzerland, 1957

When asked about the issue of gaining access and the question of proximity and distance to public figures and politicians, he notes: "I feel that we are living in a much different time now. The people, the politicians back then had more time – and not an exclusive interest in just looking good. Establishing a relationship with a politician is a pure history of personality, never of self-presentation. Gaining first access was always easy, which is not the case today. I know, for example, a very good Austrian photographer who wanted to accompany Chancellor Faymann for a day – that was not possible, just not possible on a practical level. So he gave up. If you called Kreisky and said, 'Herr Chancellor' (or at that time, Herr Foreign Minister) – when might you have half an hour for me to come by?' he [might have] said,'C'mon, forget it' and then, 'Well, good, alright then...'". Lessing is silent for a moment and adds with enigmatic irony: "And that was the unapproachable personality."

The photographer has nothing but unequivocal criticism of today's media landscape, which has also meant the end of his "century of reporting". "[Back then] we were 15 photographers who all knew where they will publish, not like the 200 today who have no idea what they will do with their pictures."


An old shoeshine reading a newspaper.
Belgrade, 1952.

And moreover: "There are no more newspapers." If anything, "it's all about fashion or food," he adds and: "It was never easy in our profession, and I have always been something of a tightrope walker. But there was always a net below. These days, there's no net at all anymore." Probably for this reason, his advice for budding young photographers is that they learn how to shine shoes instead....


Press photographers focus their cameras on the
participants of the failed summit. Paris, 1960

Erich Lessing tells stories and relates history – in personal interviews, but especially through his pictures. "You really have to catch the right moment, but this almost always included a little bit of luck," he says mischievously. He repeatedly refers to the surrounding pictures – we are sitting in his gallery, which the 89-year-old opened just last year. "This one is McCarthy, probably the most unpleasant personality I've ever met. He always scowled at everyone, here he's scowling at Robert Kennedy. But two minutes and thirty seconds sufficed to capture that. The others? It's important to catch just the right moment, to be there; but how do you identify the right moment, exactly, not only in the [context of ] the report, but in real life, too, well...."  He pauses a moment, then motions with a sweeping gesture, a glance. "In the pictures that feature people, I sometimes find myself thinking: Did I really understand what was happening at the time? Did I truly comprehend the relationship of my subject towards me, and correctly? Should I have acted differently? Might my life have taken a different direction, or not really, not at all? But these are actually thoughts for 4 in the morning...." He smiles faintly, and becomes silent.

Nurses on a carousel in the Prater.
Vienna, 1954

In contrast to his pictures, Erich Lessing's answers barely refer to the particular moment in question as depicted in the image, but span and reflect developments over the long term – raising deeper, meaningful questions – therein lies their inherent, subtle strength. They seem to urge the observer to really consider matters, but provide no direct instruction, per se, much in the way that his pictures also offer no solutions, but rather capture moments that always seem combine a whole range of facets.

Yet all that said, simply relying on chance or coincidence has nothing to do with professional work. "You have to think along with events themselves, as they are unfolding. What will happen here or there, what will be the next step? […] That thinking ahead is also a part of journalism."

Indeed, at first sight Lessing's pictures generate amazement and fascination through their pointed immediacy and scintillating emotion, or through the brilliance of their perspective or composition. But the more time you take for a single photo or an entire report or series, the more clear it becomes, visible, and levels unfold gracefully, layer by layer.

The time spent observing and that which emerges from pictures – therein, perhaps, dwells the real key to the questions about the possibilities of photography. Lessing himself considers "the great age of reporting" to be long gone, one that started in small formats and went on to include photographers such as Erich Salomon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and others, "that is, those who will prove to be an archive for posterity". Good reporting simply needs time to develop and the space to be published. "I recently met a colleague who said that back then 'we had shoots (Strecken)', and I thought 'shoots?'; I hadn't even remembered the word existed anymore -- of course he meant 'photo shoots'." Lessing yet again motions to the surrounding walls, which are festooned with his photos. "These are all parts of a report, from which one, maybe two stand out as individual pictures. Sure, the others are also important, but cover something else. Most of these photos came about over the course of one, maximum two-year periods, this just doesn't happen anymore, nobody does that anymore." The people Lessing photographed he accompanied over a whole period of time, covering subjects such as politicians, artists or miners. He pointedly dealt directly with them, engaged them personally, their environment, approaching them with great interest and respect, and spent real time with them. "But that only happens for me in the context of a bigger report. I'm the photographer without a camera, I never go with a camera, I have two eyes, I hate photographers who constantly walk around with the camera, that's really unnecessary."


Shift change in the Oranje Nassau mine in Heerlen.
Netherlands, 1951.

That which is true for reporting Lessing also made the basis underpinning his art and museum photography, to which he has been so intensely dedicated since the 1970s. He has photographed impressive volumes covering the Louvre and the British Library; he also tells me of the privilege of being able to work on exhibition closing days in the Louvre or in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, "with no Japanese groups who are either looking for the toilets or the Mona Lisa." It seems a huge contrast to his beginnings in reporting photography, in which a quick response often made for a good picture; this process of taking a long time to consider individual works of art, indeed, for the process of photography itself. But to take on a subject intensively and to deal with it from different perspectives over a fixed period of time in order to understand different relationships and to make them comprehensible, this requires, both here and there, paying close attention to the crucial basics.

Today, it is Erich Lessing himself who occasionally ends up in front of the camera, at vernissages, awards and similar occasions – "it's a matter of age," he says with a grin.

Having spoken with him, one truly understand that great pictures need time to come to fruition, the ideas behind them to be developed, explored and captured until they are finally ready. Making relationships, developments and backgrounds visible and comprehensible does not work in terms of mere fleeting seconds, but evolve over years and sometimes, decades. Subjects – and to an even greater degree, people – require more time to be understood, and really be known and then conveyed in the form of a picture – a fine line which only an eye with a true vision can relate. Erich Lessing, the man on the tightrope, has walked that line for decades, and his pictures will stand the test of time.


A little boy carrying a large piece of
firewood home. Budapest, 1956


by Evelyn Schalk
Translated by Mark Kanak

The Erich Lessing Photo Gallery in Weihburggasse 22, 1010 Vienna, has changing exhibitions, and an extensive online archive is available at .

Text in German...

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