Who is Evelyn Hofer?

Described as ‘a photographer’s photographer’ discover more about Evelyn Hofer and the story behind her understated and often under-appreciated work.  

Black and white photograph showing a mirror on a plain wall. Reflected in the mirror is a woman wearing a wide brimmed hat and stood next to her, a woman holding up a camera to take the photo, wearing a black top and trousers

Who is Evelyn Hofer?

Described as ‘a photographer’s photographer’ discover more about Evelyn Hofer and the story behind her understated and often under-appreciated work.  

An interview with exhibition curators Susanne Breidenbach and Clare Grafik

Early life

Born in Marburg, Germany, in 1922, Evelyn and her family left Germany following the Nazi's rise to power. Moving to Geneva in Switzerland when Evelyn was 11, they later moved to Spain, and finally settled in Mexico in the early 1940s. 

Black and white photograph of a street scene where a woman is in the centre of the image using a large format camera on a tripod, looking through it under a dark cloth. Around her are young children in the street watching.

Evelyn's photography career begins

Hofer’s early training included apprenticeships in two commercial portrait studios, and an induction in photographic theories and techniques with the German-born Swiss photographer Hans Finsler in Switzerland. 

Finsler was a pioneer of the ‘New Objectivity’ movement in German art that arose during the 1920s as a reaction against expressionism. Photographer August Sander was also a member of the group. 

This formative period acquainted her with modernist theories of aesthetics and technical and chemical processes as well as traditions which considered applied and fine art photography on an equal footing. 

One reason I like to work with a big camera is that I don't like to spy on people...I respect them and I want them to respect what we are doing together.

Evelyn Hofer
Black and white photograph of four women, three women are sat with their legs crossed and one woman is stood behind them. There is a tree in the background, immediately behind the standing woman

New York and editorial work

In her early twenties, Hofer moved from Mexico, and settled in New York – a city that provided a great source of inspiration. The city offered a dynamic cultural scene and here artists Richard Lindner and Saul Steinberg became life-long friends. 

She began working for Harper’s Bazaar, which was under the artistic direction of Alexey Brodovitch at the time. More editorial commissions for other magazines followed. 

However, it would be a series of photobooks published throughout the late 1950s and 1960s – focusing on US and European cities including New York, Washington, London and Dublin – that offered her the opportunity to develop a distinctive style. 

Soldier in Uniform with Girlfriend, New York, 1974 © Estate of Evelyn Hofer, Courtesy Galerie m, Bochum, Germany

I always prefer to take rather long exposures. Like a second. I feel that I get the attention of the person more with long exposures. The person being photographed has to concentrate too. We get our concentration together, and then something happens.

Evelyn Hofer
Young girl stood still holding a large bike, which looks too big for her to use. Street scene behind her. She is looking at the camera

A world awaits

In the late-1950s Hofer was asked to collaborate on an illustrated book, The Stones of Florence, with the novelist and political activist Mary McCarthy. This project led her to work on many subsequent volumes in other cities throughout the 1960s – including New York, Washington, Dublin and London – producing some of her most powerful images. 

Hofer’s quiet attention to detail and expressive use of colour would go on to influence many contemporary photographers including Thomas Struth, Joel Sternfeld, Rineke Dijkstra, Judith Joy Ross and Alec Soth. 

While working on my Dublin book I found many people shy and reluctant to be photographed...I tried to meet the person first, to show my respect and desire to take the portrait wherever he or she would prefer.

Evelyn Hofer
An American policeman sits on a large motorbike, on grass, with a large cherry blossom tree behind him

Technical mastery, artistic vision

Working with a large 4x5 camera, often with colour film, Hofer’s approach contrasted with the black and white ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ style of contemporaries such as Robert Frank and William Klein.  

During the 1970s, she adopted the complex colour dye transfer printing process – involving three layers of coloured dye applied by hand to one emulsion layer – that lends so many of her colour images their expressive impact.

In the same decade, Hofer continued to work editorially for US and European magazines including TIME and the Sunday Times Magazine. This work often focused on contemporary political subjects such as British prisons, the Watergate scandal and Northern Ireland during the Troubles. 

Colour photograph of a still life arrangement of a bowl of oranges on the right and a plate with some lemons on the left

The most famous unknown photographer

Later in life, when asked how she felt about being described by the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer as the ‘most famous unknown photographer in America’, Hofer insisted that it was always the work that mattered, not fame. 

Described by some who knew her as ‘intensely private’, Hofer died in 2009, aged 87, in Mexico City. 

For Evelyn, the work was her life.

Elisabeth Biondi - visuals editor The New Yorker