domingo, 5 de noviembre de 2017

Lisl Steiner in Bratislava: Opening Day of " Portraits from Paradise " Picture Exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum



The premiere event of Lisl Steiner´s " Portraits from Paradise " Picture Exhibition featuring 20th Century black & white historical and defining images took place at the Austrian Cultural Forum located at Hodzovo Namestie 1/A in Bratislava (Slovakia) on November 3, 2017 at 17:00 h, and will be held until December 5, 2017.


Lisl Steiner in Bratislava (Slovakia). Throughout a career spanning 68 years as a professional photographer, this brave woman was a witness of many major worldwide developments of 20th Century, having got pictures of the relevant men and women who were their main driving forces, so her collection of images is currently a full-fledged trove for any enthusiast of Photojournalism History.


From left to right, three of the forty highly representative pictures made by Lisl Steiner:

- Senator Robert Kennedy inside the Carlyle Hotel in New York with some Irish children. 1967


- Times Square (New York). Woman mourning the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963.


Times Square (New York) on November 22, 1963, a few hours after being known that JFK had been slain in Dallas (Texas), which prompted the launching of a number of special editions by the most significant newspapers and illustrated magazines of the time. 


This gorgeous exhibition encompassing a painstakingly chosen assortment of 40 black and white images made by the Austrian-American photographer, photojournalist and documentary film maker between 1950 and early nineties of 20th Century had already raised high expectation since its very announcement some weeks before.



As a matter of fact, though the opening of the exhibition was slated to begin at 17:00 h in the afternoon, there were visitors from roughly 15:00 h watching Lisl Steiner´s vast array of pictures making it up.


Katarína Lesná (Public Relations and Marketing Officer of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Bratislava) and Wilhelm Pfeistlinger (Head of the Austrian Cultural Forum Bratislava) watching one of the photographs of Lisl Steiner´s " Portraits from Paradise " exhibition beside the Austrian-American acclaimed photojournalist.

Lisl Steiner delivering the welcoming speech to the abundant audience inside the Astoria Palace Rakúske Kultúrne Forum (Austrian Cultural Forum) at Hodzovo Namestie 1/A in Bratislava (Slovakia). Next to her is Branislav Stepanek, Curator of Lisl Steiner´s " Portraits from Paradise " Picture Exhibition.

And it truly came up to scratch.


Nobody was let down throughout this unforgettable opening day which became not only an exceedingly beckoning experience for lovers of black and white classical photography belonging to the halcyon days of the medium, but also a venue in which emotions skyrocketed when the more than 300 attendees ( a remarkable figure for an event like this held inside a relatively small location on a Friday evening) who crammed the facilities were quickly entranced by the fascinating personality, humbleness, experience, unique sense of humour and courage of this 90 year old woman who proved her mettle once and again during the second half of 20th century photographing many of the most important and powerful figures of politics, arts and sports shaping the world in that time, but simultaneously never letting success go to her head, in spite of having worked for many decades as a photojournalist for a number of internationally prestigious magazines, newspapers, and picture agencies like Life, The New York Times, Newsweek, Keystone Press Agency, Time, O Cruzeiro and others, as well as having published her portfolios in such top-notch illustrated publications like Leica World, Black + White Photography, LFI, etc.

Moreover, there was a substantial presence of recognized professional photographers, documentary filmmakers and personalities of the photograpy scope like Clemens Kneringer, Vivian Winther, Markus Oberndorfer, Ágnes Bihari, Meinrad Hofer, Robert Baldridge, Alexander Peter Schummel and others, in addition to the attendance of Helfried Carl (Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia).



The Curator and Project Manager Branislav Stepanek with Lisl Steiner, who came from New York (United States) to be present at the event.


Marcela Mokranova (officer at the Austrian Cultural Forum Bratislava) and Wilhelm Pfeistinger (Head of the Austrian Cultural Forum Bratislava) presenting Lisl Steiner to the scores of visitors having a penchant for true top-notch black and white photography on paper.


Wilhelm Pfeistinger (Head of the Austrian Cultural Forum Bratislava) during his introductory speech presenting Lisl Steiner.


Marcela Mokranova (officer at the Austrian Cultural Forum Bratislava) during her introductory speech presenting Lisl Steiner.


Lisl Steiner strolling while watching some of her pictures a few minutes before the opening of " Portraits from Paradise " exhibition at the facilities of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Bratislava (Slovakia).


Lisl Steiner walks past a picture of United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger she made within the U.N building in New York in 1975.


                                                 André Kertész inside the International Center of Photography in New York. 1980


Lisl Steiner talking to Helfried Carl (Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia) while there´s being a bursting into applause after having unravelled some of her photographs to a group of relishing visitors.


Three further pictures made by Lisl Steiner. From left to right:

- Norman Mailer and his mother at Miami Airport. 1968


- The terrible image of Julia Friedmann, " Mother Goose ", Robert Capa´s mother, visiting his son´s grave for the last time at Amawalk Cemetery (New York). 1961.


Julia Friedmann, the all passion and huge working capacity woman, who cooked by the piece —specially Krautfleckerln in Hungarian Káposztás tésztastyle — from 1937 in the brownstone of West-eighty ninth Street of New York, where she lived with Cornell Capa (who worked as a printer at the laboratory of Pix Agency, founded in Manhattan in 1936 by Leon Daniel, Celia Kutschuk, Alfred Eisenstaedt and George Karger and would quickly become a Life magazine darkroom expert, and after working in the photo intelligence unit of the U.S Air Force during the Second World War, turned into a Life staff photographer in 1946) and his wife Edie, preparing meals not only for them but also for many future great pros then still fledging photographers beginning their careers like Ralph Morse (who went to see Mother Goose, Cornell and Edie after finishing his photography classes in the City College of New York) , Eileen Darby (who worked in Pix laboratory in the same way as Cornell Capa and subsequently founded her own agency Graphic House in 1941)), Yale Joel, Phil Schultz and others (including Ruth Orkin from 1943), is now perceives the proximity of death and sits by the grave of her son Robert Capa, doing it in such a way that she can´t see the inscription with his name on the stone slab, because she can´t stand the sorrow.


Julianna Henrietta Berkovits is 73 years old. She is visibly aged and very worn out by suffering. The great health, strength and stamina she always featured have significantly waned, and the warmhearted and beloved Mother Goose is almost without energy to go on living. The death of his beloved son Robert Capa seven years before shattered her.


She is immersed in her own thoughts, with an almost lifeless gaze, and it is at this moment when Lisl Steiner, the woman who has accompanied her to the Amawalk cemetery, gets her last picture.


A few seconds later, a terrible and heart-rending scene happens when suddenly Robert Capa´s mother bursts into tears and throws herself on the grave of his son, yelling: Bob, Bob, Why are you here? !


- B.B King sitting in bed. 1968



Scads of visitors paid heed to Lisl Steiner´s explanations about her photographs. The American-Austrian photographer does remember with awesome accuracy every detail of the appearing people, year and moment in which she got each picture.


Three more well-known images made by Lisl Steiner.

From left to right:


- Duke Ellington during his concert at the Madison Square Garden of New York in 1960.


- Carmen Amaya, Goddess of Flamenco Dance, during her legendary performance in the Village Gate Club of New York (located at the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village) in 1962, one year before her death.


Lisl Steiner got this great picture shooting from a very near distance to the stage, and remembers the breathtaking speed, accuracy and coordination of movements, along with the tremendous strength and fury she displayed (to such an extent she was defined as ´A Human Vesuvius´ by Walter Terry, dance expert of the New York Herald Tribune), it all combined with phases in which she resembled a hummingbird when moving her arms.


The queen of tablaos achieved among others huge international successes like her also mythical performances at the Carnegie Hall of New York in 1941 (being invited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to a party in the White House a few days later), the London Princess Theatre in 1948 and at the Westminster Theatre of London in 1959.


Shortly after her first appearances in New York in 1941 hired by the Newcomber Manhattan Night Club (where she attained a colossal success throughout three months, with sold out flamenco shows every day, raising the audiences from their seats and earning 82,000 dollars a week with her Flamenco Troupe of Gypsy Dancers and Musicians) she had already been featured by Life magazine with a great reportage on her inside its number of March 10, 1941 with wonderful pictures made by Gjon Mili, who also captured masterfully the unutterable tremendous passion and fire displayed by Carmen Amaya, a woman who could dance flamenco inside her mother´s womb before being born on November 2nd, 1913.


- Pete Seeger singing with children. 1968



On construing her images oozing meaningful captured instants and depiction of very special atmospheres of those times to the attendees to this unforgettable exhibition, the American-Austrian photographer placed them in context, making them think about the pictures and the fleeting split seconds turned into everlasting defining moments with her Leica rangefinder cameras.


                                                                                                           Oscar Niemayer in Brasilia. 1957


Girl in an asylum for insane patients in Buenos Aires (Argentina). 1956. During fifties, Lisl Steiner was one of the pioneering photojournalists making picture essays with 24 x 36 mm format cameras inside mental hospitals, along with Alfred Eisenstaedt´s reportage within the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital in Long Island (New York) in 1938 for Life, Esther Bubley´s photo essay on mental illnesses for Ladies Home Journal in 1949, Eve Arnold´s work in loony bins of Haiti in 1954 and Eugene Smith´s Madness Project also in Haiti in 1958 and 1959.

Already then, the  " I know that inside the sylum you didn´t live, you survived " staple keynote set forth by Alex Majoli thirty-eight years later in 1994 while fulfilling his Leros island reportage, prevailed.



The 90 year old photographer was very active inside the Austrian Cultural Forum gallery during the whole opening day of her " Portraits from Paradise " exhibition, answering every question asked by the plenty of lovers of black and white photography who steadily huddled beside her and revelled in the manifold anecdotes, experiences and stories related with the pictures that Lisl Steiner told them with lavish description.


Aside from her photographic essays and portraits regarding important personalities of politics, arts and sport sphere along with the events in which they performed the main roles, Lisl Steiner also excelled at the genre of social, ethnographic and documentary reportage, as proved by these three pictures in which he managed to go unnoticed while creating the images:

- Yanomami tribe boy smoking in the Amazonian jungle. Manaos (Brazil). 1960


- Hasidic Jew boy in Brooklyn, New York. 1964


- Boy in sportswear with football boots. New York, 1973.



Eleven years old Fidelito, Fidel Castro´s son, inside a classroom at the Havana Military School. 1961.

The photojournalist made a wise use of the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 DR lens attached to her Leica M3 rangefinder camera to get the picture from a near distance, getting advantage of the true short tele nature of the standard highly luminous lens to create a commendable image in which she has managed to go unnoticed, in spite of the great proximity to the subject, who has been photographed engrossed in his thoughts and with very natural proportions lacking distortion.


This is a remarkable image also revealing that Fidelito — in the same way as his father — is a left-handed person, and very significant in terms of the meaningful instant captured, because it is a quite frontal shot in which the lens is aiming at the boy in an almost utterly perpendicular way, with a second classmate in the background rendered slightly out of focus to highlight the Cuban leader´s offspring.


It´s a very similar shooting angle to the one existing in the photograph of a Japanese boy (with a girl on his right) within a Kyoto school classroom writing with a pencil on a paper sheet while looking at the blackboard (out of image) made by Werner Bischof ten years before with his 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) Rolleiflex Automax X Model K4/50 TLR medium format camera and its Zeiss Tessar 75 mm f/3.5 lens.



Inevitably, a question arises: Why Lisl Steiner´s pictures bring about such unutterable high levels of collective enthusiasm and interest, often dumbfounding the observers and getting them hearkened to her explanations ?

That´s not an easy question to answer, but there are a number of key factors making possible to properly grasp the weightiness of these images:


a) They are photographs in which the technical excellence of the images in terms of sharpness, contrast, direction and quality of light, etc, play second fiddle, the main goal being to capture exceedingly meaningful instants conveying messages, special moods and atmospheres of the moments or unveiling the main personality traits of the photographed human beings.


On the other hand, these were times in which most photographers calculated the proper exposure through estimation, without any light meter.


b) To get the picture is by far the most important thing, to such an extent that being at the adequate place at the suitable instant becomes the cornerstone of a kind of photography in which the maximum feasible proximity to the subject is also fundamental, along with the ability of the photojournalist to spawn a rapport with the photographed people.


c) To constantly strive after going unnoticed, since discretion is essential to be able to create this type of pictures getting the subjects unaware, with respect and without disturbing them any way.


It is the dream of every full-fledged photojournalist: to become invisible just at the moment in which he or she is getting a good picture.


And this concept is powerfully reinforced by the whispering almost imperceptible noise of the rubberized cloth shutter release curtains of Leica M rangefinder cameras, together with the brightline frames for different focal lenses projected through metallic masks enabling to see what is happening outside their limits in the moment of getting the pictures.


d) Lisl Steiner made a very high percentage of her photographs with 24 x 36 mm format analog Leica rangefinder cameras (Leica M2, Leica M3, Leica M5, Leica M6 and Leica M7) lacking swivelling mirror, enabling the photographer to shoot handheld with available light at much slower shutter speeds (sometimes even at 1/8 s and 1/4 s without almost any trepidation) than with a single lens reflex camera, with the added bonus of an incredibly short shutter lag (ranging between 10 ms and 12 ms for the M2, M3 and M6, the models most used by the Austro-American photographer and far better in this regard than the cream of the crop of current professional full frame dslr cameras like the Nikon D850, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EOS 5DS, Pentax K-1 and Sony A7RII) resulting in an almost non existent delay between the pressing of the shutter release button and the creation of the image.


e) Lisl Steiner´s images on paper exude the mythical Leica hallmark aesthetic appearance of the photojournalism heyday: in many of them the focus is not absolutely 100% accurate, grain is visible but it doesn´t matter at all, particularly as to the all-around performer Kodak Tri-X 400 (the main black and white film used by Lisl Steiner), a chemical emulsion whose impressive versatility, great exposure latitude and oustanding acutance makes possible to the observers, many decades after the images were created, to enjoy wonderful levels of sharpness visual perception.


f) The non aspherical Leica M lenses used by Lisl Steiner (Summicron DR 50 mm f/2, Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version 3, Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 First Version SAWOM, Super Angulon-M 21 mm f/3.4 and Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 with scalloped focusing ring) don´t deliver stratopsheric levels of resolution and contrast typical in the modern aspherical Leica M lenses, but boasted awesome mechanical construction as well as rendering second to none image quality in their time and above all great character and distinctive image appearance, particularly Walter Mandler´s 35 mm wideangle and 90 mm compact tele lens designs conceived in Midland, Ontario (Canada) and optimized for photojournalism as well as yielding superb bokeh in the out of focus areas, often attained through the intentional preservation of some specific optical aberrations.


g) The accuracy of the timing when pressing the shutter release button of the camera is a further pivotal factor to get good photojournalistic pictures, and it is pretty apparent in many of Lisl Steiner´s images, captured with a shooting quickness and precision conceptually linked to Dennis Stock´s tenet " The photographic decision, like the jazz decision, must be instantaneous ".



From left to right:

- Shoeshine boys in Copacabana beach, Rio do Janeiro (Brazil). 1957. They had no childhood and Lisl was with their mothers, who lived in favelas and were prostitutes. Image belonging to her Children of the Americas Project.   


- Girl in the dining wagon of a train. Brazil. 1968. This is the second picture of this girl made by Lisl Steiner going unnoticed from a very near distance with her Leica M2 and a Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 First Version Sawom. In the second one, the girl was photographed with the five fingers of her right hand stretched and three standing people in the background.


- Bathing Child in Pound Ridge (New York). 1970



Franz Beckenbauer signing an autograph on a ball to a young fan in the locker-room of Cosmos New York Soccer Club. 1977


Lisl Steiner is congratulated and supported by one of the attendees to the exhibition. In the background can be seen other two pictures made by her:

- The pianist Friedrich Gulda in Buenos Aires. 1949


- The British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham at the piano. 1963



Fidel Castro at his uncle´s home in Buenos Aires.

Picture made by Lisl Steiner on May 2, 1959. It is an exceedingly interesting double exposure in whose center can be seen Fidel Castro standing beside his uncle Gonzalo Castro Argil — brother of his father Angel María Bautista Castro Argil — just after having had lunch inside the house located at the Street Cabello 3589 where the 79 year old man has lived in Buenos Aires since 1913.


The day before, Fidel Castro had promised his uncle Gonzalo to have lunch at his home, on the condition of being offered a caldo gallego.


The Cuban revolutionary leader kept his word and went to this house located in the Palermo neighbourhood of the Argentinian capital to have lunch on Saturday May 2, 1959, after delivering his speech at the modern building of the Secretary of Commerce where he explained his planning of economical development for Latin America, focused on a financial boost of 30,000 million dollars in a ten years period.


Lisl Steiner had previously taken a picture of people standing outside this house, and subsequently went into it to cover the meeting of Fidel Castro with his uncle, but after taking out the Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white 35 mm film from her Leica rangefinder camera, she inadvertently put it inside it back again, so a double exposure happened and in the image there are people from the previous picture she got in front of the house and other people who had just had lunch inside Gonzalo Castro´s home.


Though this image was created unintentionally, exposing the same 35 mm film roll twice in this frame, it is a riveting picture.




Lisl Steiner´s " Portraits from Paradise " picture exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Bratislava (Slovakia) has proved that the photographer´s eye and sight along with his/her gleaned experience, intuition and emotional connection with the subjects are the most important aspects when it comes to getting good pictures.

Not in vain, her images belong to a golden era of photojournalism in which cameras didn´t feature autofocus or a host of technologically advanced electronic and automatic functions whatsoever.


But in spite of it, the photojournalists managed once and again to create a very high percentage of the best and most iconic images ever made in the whole History of Photography.


Suffice it to say that two years before his death, Alfred Eisenstaedt (one of the greatest photojournalists ever, who got 90 covers in Life magazine and was friend of Lisl Steiner, who photographed him a lot of times) made the Clinton family portraits at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury on Martha´s Vineyard (Massachussets) in 1993 with a LTM39 Leica IIIa rangefinder camera lacking any electronic device and coupled to a manual focusing Leitz Summitar 5 cm f/2 Number, using only one 35 mm format roll film.


Whatever it may be, this event has gone far beyond the photographic realm, reaching a remarkable human dimension in which the gist has been the sincere appreciation and love given to Lisl Steiner by the great numbers of people who came to watch this unique image display epitomizing the reference-class haptic experience of black and white true photography on paper and thanked her effort to be present during this opening day.


Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza