Finding Gita Lenz

By Amy Ritchie
Richmond Arts Review
March 15, 2011

On January 20th of this year, Gita Lenz died in New York, 100 years old, having just witnessed the first published monograph of her photographs. She had produced no new work since the 1960s, had not exhibited since the 50s, and had been wiped clean from the slate of art history until her path serendipitously crossed those of Timothy Bartling and his friend Gordon Stettinius, photographer and founder of Candela Books, a Richmond-based press devoted to printing quality publications of the photographic arts.

Candela’s premier title, Gita Lenz, offers a simple yet sophisticated homage to the vision of the late Gita Lenz. Among the fifty some images are two self-portraits and two poems by the artist, whose poetry appeared in The New York Quarterly in the years after her photography career had faded. Lenz’s photographs presumably move from an early urban documentary-style in the 40s to abstractions in the 50s and early 60s, though her work and records left few dates or titles to pinpoint historically.

Lenz’s early photography began as a weekend pleasure in the immigrant neighborhoods of 1940s New York, bringing to mind the documentary work of Weegee, whose first book of photographs, Naked City, was widely popular in 1945 in lower Manhattan where Lenz lived. Interestingly, both Weegee and Lenz (ten years his junior) were from Ukrainian immigrant families in the same neighborhood. Weegee was a household name due to his work for the PM Daily, a leftist periodical popular with the working class immigrants, and his exhibitions with the Photo League, also a left-leaning organization. The New York Photo League was active 1936-51, involving all the big names of the day: Sid Grossman, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Weegee, and Aaron Siskind, who was a close friend of Lenz’s. The Photo League’s aim was to develop and encourage photography as a fine art and as a tool for the working class. It held lectures, taught in local schools, published a newsletter, and exhibited in the basement of a Greenwich Village hotel. Gita Lenz found her way to the camera in this environment.

By the 50s, abstraction had taken over the art scene, photography included, and Lenz’s work echoes the trend, though her photos show a deft handling of light, texture, and form. Her photography was published and exhibited often the first five years of the decade, included in such landmarks as Abstraction in Photography (1951) and The Family of Man (1955) both at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Edward Steichen. The prevalent interest in photographic abstraction after such an intensely political, documentary period is worth noting. Postwar America proved to be a repressive time, especially under the threat of McCarthyism. Not only were artists rebounding emotionally and economically from the Depression and World War II, now they could be “blacklisted” as a Communist for any reason. Abstraction offered a much safer mode of expression than the social documentary photography of preceding years. The Photo League, influential to so many notable photographers, likely including Lenz, ended in 1951 after being blacklisted. Lenz’s abstract photographs, presumably of this period, have a disquieting lack of place, or lack of attachment. This detachment hovers in her documentary photos as well, suggesting a continuous vision threading her photographic work.

Little is known about Gita Lenz’s life and work—photographic or literary—which means Candela Books and Gordon Stettinius are opening an alluring can of worms. The book, the story it tells, the photographs and poems, together create compelling curiosity. Lenz’s photography had already been collected at the Brooklyn Museum, New York Public Library, and Family of Man Museum; and the recent book-related exhibit at Gitterman Gallery in New York garnered attention from private collectors and other museums. A Richmond exhibition of Lenz photographs will open later this year at Candela’s new gallery space on Broad Street, and will hopefully inspire more scholarship and research into the mystery of Gita Lenz.

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