Evelyn Hofer: Eyes on the City | High Museum of Art, Atlanta

BY EC Flamming, May 1, 2023

Evelyn Hofer: Eyes on the City, on view through August 13, is organized by place: Florence, London, Spain, New York, Washington, D.C., Dublin, and Paris. This is hardly surprising considering the many countries in which Hofer lived and worked. Born in Germany in 1922, Hofer moved with her family to Switzerland in the early 1930s (“for ideological reasons,” according to the wall text). After getting an early start as a photographer in Geneva, Hofer moved to Madrid and then Mexico, and finally, in the 1940s, to New York, where her career as a professional photographer took off. A tension between a pervasive sense of placelessness and the desire to capture the precise mood, feel, and style of a city permeates the photographs in Eyes on the City, which showcases more than 100 vintage prints of architecture, interiors, landscapes, and portraits.

©Evelyn Hofer, Four Young Men, Washington, DC, 1968. Courtesy High Museum of Art

The exhibition begins in stately, solemn Florence, where Hofer’s mastery of black-and-white photography is on display in images of the city’s architecture and ancient sculptures. Palazzo Davanzati, Florence (1958), with its tight framing and deep shadows, shows an ability to infuse an architectural image with an intense moodiness. People appear in Hofer’s work more infrequently than one might expect, given that she was a professional photographer who worked for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and a sense of abandonment characterizes these photographs, as if the city has been recently left in ruins.

In the London section of the exhibition, Hofer’s opinions on class conflict make themselves subtly known. In these black-and-white photographs, which were part of Hofer’s second book, London Perceived (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), she focuses on her subjects’ professions. She gives particular attention to working-class Londoners, such as lorry drivers and waiters working in a gray, post-war city. Her photographs of the elite are less common, but when they do appear, she depicts her subjects as pompous and overdressed. In Flower Show, London (1962), a well-to-do man considers a lush array of flowers. The subtle difference in poses and surroundings conveys the sense (or perhaps more accurately, a hope) that the elite class was becoming increasingly obsolete, while the working class was coming into a new age.

©Evelyn Hofer, Springtime, Washington, DC, 1965. Courtesy High Museum of Art

Many of Hofer’s most striking pieces come from her time in New York. While her portraits are notable for their stylish and compelling portrayals of life in New York, it’s her interiors that stand out. The common subjects that one might associate with 1960s New York photography – the cultural shifts, the hustle and bustle, the fashion, the protests, the underground scene – are absent. Instead, eerie streets at dawn and deserted cafes are at the forefront. In one black-and-white photograph, the social and political stresses of the city are expressed in the tension between two tall, imposing buildings that appear poised to obliterate the barren street below. In Little Italy, Mulberry Street, New York (1962), a restaurant booth sits empty below a low, ornate ceiling. The lighting is dim and the decor lavish, and the scene is claustrophobic and dreamlike. Hofer’s work tended toward subtlety, but it wasn’t without commentary. Through veiled critiques on social and economic structures and her representation of a wide array of people and classes, she revealed herself as a photographer interested in capturing the whole of a place.