Erich Lessing | People Known & Unknown
18 JULY – 16 SEPTEMBER 2003
Award-winning photographer Erich Lessing has captured some outstanding moments in history and, as one of Magnum’s earliest photographers, influenced the editorial coverage of significant international events. This exhibition focuses on Lessing’s vast photographic career and diversity of work made during the 1950s – from the powerful documentation of the devastation of post-war Europe to the richness and creativity of human expression as seen in the portraits of painter Oskar Kokoschka, mime artist Marcel Marceau and John Houston on the set of Moby Dick.
The post-war period of the 1950s saw the growth of the professional photographer in search of a story. While many stories were arranged by editors who gave exact instructions on how a feature should be illustrated, many photographers, including Lessing, used their own speculation on what might make a good photo-story to sell – the photographer could be his own journalist. Lessing was to work for some of the most distinguished magazines such as Life, Picture Post, Quick Magazine and Paris Match. While photojournalism could imply that photography’s attribute is the interruption of actual time at a strategic moment, an idea also encapsulated in the speed of its process, nevertheless photographs seem to become more richly meaningful well after the time of their making. Only then can we see more clearly – see more clearly our own reflection new expressed as a history – a photographic history.
Around 1953, Magnum’s involvement with documenting cinema was formed. Lessing extended this relationship with cinema into the 1950s photographing artists and musicians, dancers, actors and directors, which in contrast to his previous series of works, proved to celebrate a new golden age. The writer and curator Alistair Crawford refers to one of Lessing’ iconic photographs created on the set of Moby Dick: ‘My special meaningful image is of Captain Ahab tied to Moby Dick, made for John Houston’s film, released in 1956. An unreal photograph – there is no whale, a made-up reality, derived from another man’s made-up fiction, a tall tale spun by a long since gone Herman Melville. In this image, Lessing, and John Houston, produce the very essence of Melville’s density of language, its complexity, suffocation, that dark, trembling fear, those rich longed for passions struggling to liberate themselves from the embroidered yet censored, language of their birth. Who thinks this story is about a whale?’
The exhibition is supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum.