Photographer Evelyn Hofer’s Timeless Portraits Get a Second Look

Taken a half-century ago, her images strike a contemporary pose

Girl with Bicycle; Guy with Bicycle
Left, Girl with Bicycle, in the Coombe, Dublin, 1966. The Photo Museum Ireland says Hofer’s work from her Dublin visit captures Ireland at a cultural turning point. Right, Queensboro Bridge, New York, 1964. “Hofer wanted to get under the skin of a city, to picture the essential characteristics of a place and its people,” says exhibition co-curator April Watson. High Museum of Art, Atlanta / ©The Estate of Evelyn Hofer (2)

She saw the people who appeared in her photographs—Parisian butchers, Harlem matrons, the children of postwar Dublin—less as subjects than as collaborators. German-born Evelyn Hofer, who died in 2009 at age 87, began her career when the vogue in photography was for candid, even sneaky shots. But Hofer, who preferred a cumbersome 4-by-5-inch viewfinder camera mounted on a tripod, found that approach not only impractical but distasteful. “One reason I like to work with a big camera is I don’t like to spy on people,” she said. “I respect them and I want them to respect what we are doing together.” In the mid-20th century, Hofer turned her lens on the social upheaval then churning through American and European cities. “She was keyed in on issues of race and class and how power dynamics come through in pictures,” notes Gregory Harris, co-curator with April Watson of the first major U.S. exhibition of Hofer’s work in over 50 years, which opens at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta this March, then travels to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “Her work looks remarkably contemporary.”

Springtime, Washington, D.C., dye transfer print, 1965 High Museum of Art, Atlanta / ©The Estate of Evelyn Hofer
Harlem Church
Harlem Church, New York, dye transfer print, 1964 High Museum of Art, Atlanta / ©The Estate of Evelyn Hofer

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This article is a selection from the March 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Editors Note, February 27, 2023: This article has been updated to clarify April Watson’s role in the new exhibition.

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