Gita Lens: Photographs

Introduction by Gordon Stettinius
Published by Candela Books, 2010

Review by Ailsa McWhinnie

Issue 22

There’s every chance you won’t have heard of Gita Lenz before now, but the story behind the production of this book of her photographs is one of chance and charm, belief and respect.

Virginia-based photographer Gordon Stettinius first met Gita Lenz back in 2002, at an exhibition of his work. Gita had attended the private view in the company of her neighbour and Gordon’s friend, Timothy Bartling. Gita – who was already in her nineties at this point – mentioned she had been a photographer in the past, and the impression she made on Gordon remained with him.

A few years later, Timothy mentioned that he was helping Gita move to sheltered housing, but he was at a loss about what to do with her photographic prints and equipment. Gordon made the journey to New York City to collect her work and take it back to Richmond with him. What he found in those boxes of prints revealed, as he puts it in the introduction to this book, ‘an abundance of evidence of a rich career and a compelling personality’.

It transpires that Gita came to photography in the 1940s. Self-taught, she took it up following the failure of her second marriage (her first husband died in the Spanish Civil War). By 1951, her work was featured in the Steichen-curated exhibition Abstraction in Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and stood its ground alongside the images of her peers, who included the likes of Alexy Brodovitch, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Aaron Siskind. Indeed, Siskind’s friendship and photographic style were to exert a significant influence on Gita’s work. This can be seen from the very first photograph: a view from (presumably) a first-floor window, down onto a street corner. There’s an archetypal New York shaft of bright sunlight falling between buildings and onto a car driving in one direction, and a figure walking in the other. The photograph is more about light, shade and shadow than it is about buildings and the human figure. As the book continues, Gita leads us out onto the street. At first, her work appears to be characterised by distance: she is several steps back from her subjects, and captures the random interplay between strangers on the street and the designs their forms create among one another. But then there’s a slight jump, and she moves in closer, photographing children singly and in groups: a small girl is tied to a rope – presumably so as not to wander out of sight; a group of slightly older children, their underclothes drenched, shiver in what might be the aftermath of a hot-summer water fight; nine pre-teen boys lounge across a bench, displaying a nervous cockiness and brandishing cigarettes, their baseball bats discarded on the ground. Later in the book we encounter a man, slumped in a wooden shelter, the rope that dangles above his head looking for all the world like a noose that represents his exit from this world.

Assuming the photographs are presented chronologically (there are no accompanying captions or dates to clarify this), like many photographers before and since, Gita moved from street photography into the abstract, finding interest in the shape and form of found objects – both manmade and natural. And so, in one image, a pile of breezeblocks becomes a tumbledown block of flats, while in another, a tarpaulin-covered object could even be a burka-clad woman looking into a shop window. In this section of the book, we see Gita toying with our perceptions by playing with scale, negative space, reflection and form. While, for me, it is in the street photography where the heart of Gita’s photography beats, the more abstract, surreal representations in the latter half of the book encourage a more contemplative response, and there is much to be found in these images the longer one spends with them.

Because Gita – still alive and enjoying her 100th year – has suffered with a failing memory in recent years, there are certain gaps in her story which Gordon has been unable to fill. In many ways, however, this only adds to the pleasure of the book. We are able to enjoy the photographs for what they are, and to choose our own context for them, unhindered by too much information. This is a glorious tribute (most of us can only dream of seeing our work published with such outstanding and respectful production values) to a little-known photographer. For Gordon Stettinius to have gone as far as founding a book publishing company specifically to bring the work of Gita Lenz to a wider audience is something that we, as that audience, should be grateful for.

In his conclusion to the book, Gordon is reminded of a moment when, on studying her photographs, Gita looked up and said, ‘Well, I must say I was pretty damn good.’ Yes, Gita. You were.

Ailsa McWhinnie was the founding editor of the UK-based magazine, Black & White Photography. She is now a freelance features writer and book editor.

Buy the book here.