Training Wheels | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Training Wheels

Training Wheels

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When 5-year-old Mark Faurer sat behind the wheel of the big Plymouth that day in 1948, he wasn’t aware that his father, Louis Faurer, was taking his picture. "It seems strangely prophetic, doesn’t it?" Mark says of the photograph. Now 59, he has been driving a taxicab in New York City for 25 years.

Louis Faurer’s moody mid-century photographs are on display in a new exhibition in Andover, Massachusetts, and in a book, Louis Faurer, edited by Anne Wilkes Tucker. The photographer found his calling first in his native Philadelphia, then moved to New York City with his wife and their only child after World War II. The light and energy of Times Square held a special appeal. There, he spent nights shooting street scenes, many with lurid movie marquees as background. His subjects tended to be marginalized figures alienated from an indifferent city. "My eyes search for people who are grateful for life," Faurer wrote in 1981, "people who forgive and whose doubts have been removed, who understand the truth, whose enduring spirit is bathed by such piercing white light as to provide their present and future with hope."

Through his then-novel use of reflection, shadow and multiple images, Faurer conveyed a sense of hectic movement around stationary characters. His photographs have been compared to film noir, with their intense focus on the mental state of their protagonists. Even the photograph of his son, Mark, an apparently delighted subject, embodies Faurer’s evocative lighting, his ominous, overpowering empty spaces, and a vulnerable central figure.

To support his family, Louis Faurer moved into fashion photography, shooting in the 1950s and ’60s for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle and Seventeen. "He took pride in his fashion work," says Mark Faurer. "He was a perfectionist. He was always trying to get graceful lines and intelligent expressions from his models."

But it was Faurer’s street pictures that ensure his legacy. The critic Paul Richard has written that Faurer’s work occupies "that place between two of the most influential 'straight' photographers of our century, the political Walker Evans and the more emotional Robert Frank." Faurer and Frank, best known for his masterwork The Americans, were friends; they shared darkroom space and inspired each other. Decades later, a foundation established by Frank donated $100,000 to mount the Faurer show and produce Tucker’s book.

Faurer never achieved great fame, and returning to the United States in 1974 after six years in Europe, he was dogged by money troubles. He taught part-time and lectured, and an exhibition of his work was mounted in 1981. In 1984, he was struck by a car and suffered a debilitating head injury; he died last year at age 84.

The retrospective of Louis Faurer’s work—organized by Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which also published the book—is at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, until July 28, 2002. It then moves to the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego (August 11 to October 20), the Art Institute of Chicago (November 9 to January 26, 2003) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (June 14 to September 7).

Though Faurer taught his son to use a camera and work in the darkroom, Mark enlisted in the Marines and moved to California, working at a variety of jobs before returning to New York in 1977. He and his wife of 30 years, Margaret, have two daughters. "My dad wanted me to continue studying piano," Mark recalls. "He said I was an artist. He thought driving a taxi was bad for my health."

Today, when Mark looks at the picture of himself in the Plymouth, he ponders his youthful joy. "That’s not how I feel when I’m in my car today," he says. Now and then, though, a passenger who knows Louis Faurer’s work climbs into his taxi. "They tell me he was a great photographer, and that makes me feel pretty good."

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