Always Spontaneous – an Introduction to Sabine Weiss

Daniel SiggPhotographer Introductions 3 Comments

I wanted to introduce another fantastic Swiss-born photographer, Sabine Weiss. Sabine Weiss may not be as well known as others, but her photography, body of work and accomplishments are absolutely amazing.

Sabine Weiss at Vogue, 1956

Sabine Weiss (born Weber) is a Swiss-born photographer (1924, in Saint-Gingolph). She used her first photographic film when she was just 11 years old. In 1942 she studied under Paul Boissonas in Geneva and in 1945, she got her diploma in photography. She moved to Paris and was assisting Willy Maywald from 1946 to 1950. In 1949, she traveled to Italy and met the American painter Hugh Weiss, whom she married in 1950. The couple has a daughter, Marion, who was born in 1964. Sabine became a naturalized French citizen in 1995.

© Sabine Weiss – Paris, 1955

She became an independent photographer in 1950 and opened her own studio. She met Robert Doisneau at Vogue in 1952, and also became a member of the Rapho agency. In 1953 her photographs appeared in many major publications including Du, Newsweek, and Paris Match. She also exhibited for the first time at the MoMA in New York that year. From 1952 to 1961 she collaborated with Vogue. From 1954 to 1960 her work regularly appeared in many major publications including New York Times Magazine, Leica Fotografie, Time and others. In 1955 she also participated in the famous “The Family of Man” exhibition at the MoMA. In 1954, the Art Institute of Chicago devoted a solo exhibition to her which toured the USA. Her successes continued, and can be viewed in more detail here (wikipedia, her website).

© Sabine Weiss – sortie de metro, Paris, 1955

I photograph to preserve the ephemeral, fix chance, to keep in an image what will disappear: gestures, attitudes, objects which are testimonies of our passing. – Sabine Weiss

© Sabine Weiss – une rue a Naples, 1955

Sabine Weiss worked in various sectors: portraits of musicians/composers (she photographed Stravinsky, Britten, Casals, Getz), writers and artists (Léger, Fitzgerald, Pougny, Giacometti, Rauschenberg), actors (Moreau), and fashion (Chanel). As mentioned, she worked for several magazines and newspapers known in America and Europe for advertising and press orders (Vogue, Paris Match, Life, Time, Town and Country, Holiday, Newsweek, Picture Post and Die Woche etc.).

© Sabine Weiss – NYC, 1955
© Sabine Weiss – NYC, 1962

© Sabine Weiss – NYC, 1955

Weiss’s street photography was captured independently of her magazine work. She is considered one of the most prominent representatives of the French humanist photography movement, next to Robert Doisneau, Édouard Boubat, Willy Ronis, and Izis.

© Sabine Weiss – Malta, 1955

Sabine Weiss’ attention started to do more and more documentary photography and she traveled to Egypt, India, Morocco and Myanmar.

© Sabine Weiss – la petite égyptienne, 1983

Despite her successes and the publication of some 40 books, Sabine Weiss remains relatively little known. However, when you look at her body of work, it is absolutely stunning and captivating.

© Sabine Weiss – l’homme qui court, 1955
© Sabine Weiss – Jardin des plantes, Paris, 1952

In 2017, Sabine Weiss donated her entire archive, which contained 200,000 negatives, 7,000 contact sheets, around 2,700 vintage prints and 2,000 late prints, 3,500 prints and 2,000 slides to the Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne.

© Sabine Weiss – 2cv sous la pluie, Paris, 1957

To the date of this article, Sabine Weiss lives in Paris, France. She is 96 years old.

© Sabine Weiss – je suis en cheval, Espagne, 1952

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Sabine Weiss (from All About Photo).

AAP (All About Photo): What or who inspires you?

Sabine Weiss: Anything human and out of the ordinary.

© Sabine Weiss – 14 juillet, Paris, 1954

AAP: How could you describe your style?

Sabine Weiss: Always spontaneous but with a view for composition.

AAP: Do you have a favorite photograph or series?

Sabine Weiss: My photographs are my children; I love them all! But at the moment I particularly like the photograph of the ‘clochard gentleman’ (gentleman hobo).

© Sabine Weiss – Brigitte Bardot, unsure about year, likely in the later 50s.

AAP: What kind of gear do you use? Camera, lens, digital, film?

Sabine Weiss: I have worked with many different formats from 8/10 inches to 24×36 mm images and of course the 24×36 mm gave me more freedom to take spontaneous and candid photographs.

AAP: What is the influence of digital technology on your photography?

Sabine Weiss: I don’t use digital cameras for shooting. I use technology for scans and sometimes make large format prints for exhibitions.

AAP: Do you spend a lot of time editing your images? For what purpose?

Sabine Weiss: Yes, I have always done it very carefully, for myself, for the press, for books and exhibitions; and I am editing once again! I want to review all my contact sheets with a fresh look.

AAP: How do you choose your subjects?

Sabine Weiss: At random, I don’t choose; I photograph what strikes and touches me.

AAP: What advice would you give a young photographer?

Sabine Weiss: To keep a personal point of view, no matter the technique.

AAP: What mistake should a young photographer avoid?

Sabine Weiss: Not take enough distance with his photographs and want to go too fast.

Recent exhibitions:

2014 Vannes, Festival de la Photo de Mer “Portugal, 1954”

2014 Zürich, Photobastei, Rétrospective

2014 Genève, Galerie Patrick Cramer, Portraits d’artistes (Giacometti et Miro)

2014 Salon de la Photo, Paris, Porte de Versailles, rétrospective « Chère Sabine » (Tribute to the photographer’s 90th birthday)

Her awards:

1987 Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters)

1999 Officier des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres)

2010 Ordre national du Mérite (French National Order of Merit)



Exclusive interview with All About Photo (see excerpts above)


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