Interview and transcript © 1990 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Andreas Feininger was his own United Nations: born in Paris to an American family of German origin. He spent his childhood years, and received most of his education, in Germany, where his father, Lyonel (bio), was a renowned artist and teacher at the Bauhaus. Andreas received his university degree in architecture, and was soon in practice in Dessau and Hamburg. He discovered quickly that in using the camera as a sort of sketchbook for his ideas he began to prefer taking photos of the architecture to designing and building the structures themselves. Even after he went to work with Le Corbusier (bio) in Paris, Feininger continued photographing, sold his first photos in 1932, and by 1936, after a move to Sweden, he gave up architecture altogether and concentrated on his camera work. He shot new architecture and old cityscapes, and experimented with the medium, pioneering many of the special effects we take for granted today. With the Nazis on the march, and Europe in disarray, in 1939 Feininger packed up and moved to the United States.
“I’m Not a People Photographer”
After a year’s stint as a photojournalist for Black Star, Feininger attracted the attention of Wilson Hicks, then photo editor (later, executive editor) of Life, who hired him for some freelance work, and later put him on staff. The Feininger-Hicks-Life relationship would last for more than 20 years and nearly 350 assignments. In the process, Feininger wrote scores of books including Feininger on Photography, The World Through My Eyes, Man and Stone, Trees and America. His photography volumes and textbooks have been translated into 13 languages. In later life, Feininger taught about photography at New York University. In 1991, he was presented with the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Lifetime Achievement Award.His work can be found in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where his photos had been part of the legendary Family of Man show and Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale and the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.
As one exhibition catalogue put it, Feininger’s work “combines an architect’s love of precision, space, and technique with an artist’s love of sweeping vistas … full of towering skyscrapers, broad swaths of road, and angles of geometric perfection … masterful in their technical excellence and panoramic grandeur.” The same sensibility and fascination with structure and infrastructure informed his pioneering nature photography, as well.
Andreas Feininger died in 1999.
The interview with Feininger took place on April 5, 1990, in his Manhattan apartment.
“Support the organization as a photographer.”
ASMP: There is a picture of you at the first cocktail party. What do you remember about why you joined the ASMP and when you joined? Not too many Life photographers did join. You were on the staff of Life, is that true?
Feininger: I joined the staff of Life in 1943.
ASMP: Who introduced you to the ASMP?
Feininger: There was Ewing Krainin. Because I think he was the one who had the idea and got us all together.
ASMP: You joined because …?
Feininger: I thought it was a good idea. Support the organization as a photographer.
ASMP: To protect the magazine photographers.
Feininger: To give them more rights.
ASMP: To give them decent money, and not to have to work on spec.
Feininger: Yes, yes. And to get their names mentioned in connection with their pictures.
Feininger: That was the purpose.
ASMP: The meetings were very obstreperous?
Feininger: Unfortunately, I never had much to say.
ASMP: You must have had a problem, then, with all those crazy photographers.
Feininger: I never had a problem with any photographer. You see, I let them do what they want to do. if they criticize, that’s their problem. I know what I’m doing, so it doesn’t upset me.
“Of course, you have to find an accessible web.”
Feininger: I do not photograph any more. I gave away all my cameras, all my photographic equipment — lenses, enlarger, everything — I gave it to ICP, donated it. Because I found that it is too strenuous for me to do black-and-white photography, though I am mostly a black-and-white photographer — have been all my life. But to develop my own prints, it’s so time-consuming, I couldn’t do it anymore, and it got too expensive. A box of paper costs about $100 now, and you have to have at least six or seven different grades. I decided to switch over to color. And for two years, I photographed exclusively in color, objects of nature, small objects of nature. And then I decided I had enough for a book. So I put the book together and I went to Rizzoli, and they published it. It’s called Nature in Miniature.
All I have to do when I work in color is to shoot the picture, which I love to do. And then I give it to any lab and get back the finished product. You see? No more physical work, no more darkroom work.
ASMP: It sounds simple.
Feininger: Of course, I lose a little bit of control that way. In color you have very little control, particularly in this kind of work, which is nature. If you work in a studio, then you have pretty much control, you can use different backgrounds of different colors, you can dress a person in a certain color. But outdoors, you have no control. You only have the right to reject anything that would not make a good picture.
In my opinion, there are two main conditions that have to be met. One is the light, either sunlight, or fog light, or front light, or back light. The other one is background. Of course, a disturbing background can ruin the most photogenic subject. So these two things have to go together.
And then other things come into play, too. For instance, I have some pictures of spider webs, which fascinate me. They are the most marvelous structures in nature, I think. You can’t photograph a spider web. It’s invisible to the human eye. You see it only if it’s outlined with the dew drops or droplets of fog. I photograph early in the morning. That’s when you get the fog. But between the droplets, you cannot see the string itself, it’s so fine.
The second condition: it has to be wind-still. No wind. Perfectly calm. Because the slightest motion, you see, you’ve lost these incredibly small droplets, and what you get is a blurred picture which doesn’t look very good.
So, background, light and the wind, all of these have to come together. All these. And, of course, you have to find an accessible web. Sometimes you see one up there, and it’s beautiful, but you can’t get at it. And it has to be in fairly good condition. Spiders create a new web every night. They recycle their web, they eat it. They reprocess it, and out comes a new spin.
So many things have to come together to make a good picture. Sometimes I bracket, but that is not for any reason of insecurity. I simply want them. You see, most of the time for automatic color the exposure — what do they call it? — the mechanism in these cameras is just fabulous. It is just beautiful. But occasionally I wanted it a little bit lighter or a little bit darker and then I shoot and bracket.
ASMP: You use the override, so you can control it.
ASMP: How many books have you published?
Feininger: Thirty-nine. I’m approaching 40. Of these, 15 are textbooks. The rest are picture books.
“The buildings are all right. But your photographs are very poor.”
ASMP: You became a photographer in Germany or Sweden?
Feininger: Well, I photographed in Germany for my own sake, for my own pleasure, and used the camera only as a means of recording anything I was interested in. You see, I was never interested in photography as such. It may sound strange. Only in what it can do. I can photograph only those things I am interested in. I hardly ever photograph people. I just can’t do it.
ASMP: Because you’re a scientist.
Feininger: Science, yes. Everything connected with science, or nature, or architecture, or technology. But mostly science, and the City of New York.
ASMP: When did you first become a photographer? When did you consider yourself a photographer?
Feininger: In Sweden. In 1933, I think it was — ‘34, maybe. I did architectural photographs for an architect. You know, I started as an architect, but I couldn’t get work. Because I was an American citizen in a foreign country, I needed a work permit. and times were so bad I couldn’t get one, not in Germany, not in France, not in Sweden. But I talked to architects, hoping to get a job. And one of them showed me pictures of buildings he had built, and asked me, “What do you think of them?” I said, “The buildings are all right. I rather like them. But your photographs are very poor. They are awful.” And he said, “Do you think so? Can you do better?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Okay, try it.” So I did. He said, “I see what you mean,” and recommended me to all his friends. And I did very well, very soon.
ASMP: Why did you come to the United States?
Feininger: Because the war broke out in Germany. Vissa [his wife] and I, we lived in Sweden for six years. My father, Bauhaus great Lyonel Feininger, was born in Europe. We both felt there is no future here. So while the war was going on, aboard ship we came here. Incidentally, on its next trip the same ship was sunk by German submarines. And it was a big, big passenger liner. They shot down everything.
ASMP: In 1939.
Feininger: Yes, it was ‘39. We arrived here in December, ‘39.
ASMP: And you met the people at Life right after that?
Feininger: No. I knew somebody here, by name of [Kurt] Safranski, at Black Star. So I visited him, and he said, “All right, I think we can use you.” And offered me a contract. Do you know how much money I made? Twenty dollars a week. At the end of the year he asked me whether I wanted to renew my contract. I said, “What are you offering me?” He said, “Well, I think we can give you 25.” Those were different times. But in the meantime, you see, he had introduced me to other people. And one of them was Wilson Hicks of Life magazine. Hicks was a very difficult person, but somehow we understood each other perfectly, and almost became friends. Anyway, he liked my photography and he gave me a retainer job in 1941. I worked for Black Star all of 1940, and in 1941 I had that retainer job. I had it for two years. In 1943 Hicks gave me a staff job.
ASMP: Why can’t you photograph people?
Feininger: I don’t know. I can’t establish a proper contact — but mainly I’m not interested. I don’t know.
ASMP: There’s a quote you wrote in your book, The Roots of Art: “Everything made by human hands, and most things conceived by the human mind, have their prototypes in nature.”
“But you see, it is how you do it and not the technical side.”
ASMP: In the past 40 years or so, a lot of serious thinking has been done on perception.
Feininger: Yes. That’s so important for making good photographs. Photographers — idiots, of which there are so many — say, “Oh, if only I had a Nikon or a Leica, I could make great photographs.” That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life. It’s nothing but a matter of seeing, and thinking, and interest. That’s what makes a good photograph. And then rejecting anything that would be bad for the picture. As I say, the wrong light, the wrong background, time and so on. Just don’t do it, not matter how beautiful the subject is. I photograph many pictures and just use a little bit of text, to make you see. That’s the only way you can do it.
ASMP: Photojournalism has changed. A lot of people use motorized cameras.
Feininger: Oh, God, yes. I’ve seen that. Yes. Of course it depends a little bit on what you photograph. You see, the moment you have motion in your picture, then it makes sense to shoot fast, because every fraction of a second something is changed — the perspective, the distance, the expression on the face. And it is very difficult to hit the right moment the first time. Because very often you don’t even see it, you know. For instance, where you have a conversation between two people. The other day, two friends of ours come in and asked me to photograph them. And since I’m not a people photographer I was a little bit, what shall I say? — Well, I told them, “Whatever comes out don’t put my name to it.” So they were sitting together, like two mannequins, two fashion dolls, side-by-side on the sofa here. And the background is horrible. So the first problem was to observe the background. And then I had an idea. I have a big picture here on the wall, a big ship going in front of the skyline. So the background was solved. So I posed them against that. And then there they sat again. They were going to be married. So I talked to them. Eventually, I made them laugh. And eventually I got some pictures that didn’t look too bad. They sent us copies. But you see, it is how you do it and not the technical side.
And, oh yes, as I say, if motion is involved there is a reason to shoot many pictures. Even though they were sitting still, there was motion in the hands and faces. They moved this way, that way, they laughed, smiled. Every moment is different. And the camera was 35mm, which I’d never used before. It had a miserable viewfinder. I couldn’t see very well. The only problem was to keep the thing properly lined up, so I couldn’t watch the expressions. I shot two rolls for them, and they got some good ones.
But when I shoot for Nature in Miniature, there have been very few exposures. That’s for a different reason, though. I usually take three or four, virtually, if not entirely, the same. Because, simply, if you have a black-and-white negative you can make any number of prints. But if you have a slide, you have only one. If it’s lost or damaged or sent out, you have nothing.
George Eastman House: Andreas Feininger Series. There are 130 Feininger images here, with an excellent variety of expandable thumbnails and wonderful documentation.