Gita Lenz (1910–2011)

By Gordon Stettinius
January 26, 2011

I am very sorry to relate the recent passing of New York photographer, Gita Lenz.

Gita died peacefully on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at a nursing home in New York City.

Gita Lenz lived most of her life in Greenwich Village on the corner of Carmine and 7th Avenue. From the 1940s through the mid-1960s, Gita created a body of work that withstands comparison to many of the better known photographers of the time. A self-described “Sunday photgrapher” in the 1940s, her work was often characterized by an interest in the city and life around her.  While the social documentary tradition definitely had a distinct influence early on, Gita would soon take an interest in abstraction, isolating aspects both in nature and in the urban environment, stripping away details, framing images unconventionally and adding new depth and meaning to mundane and dilapidated subjects. Gita would go on to work professionally for commercial and editorial clients in the 50s and 60s.

In 1951, following the seminal exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America at the Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen curated the exhibition Abstraction in Photography, and included Lenz’s work alongside that of many other notable photographers of the period. For Steichen, the exhibition was meant as a response to the “sensitive reportorial photography” of the period and featured “the work of photographers concerned with evolving another reality by probing into the realm of the abstract.” The first major exhibition of Lenz’s work was in a three-person show, The Third Eye with John Reed and Don Normark, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1952. Soon after, in 1955, Steichen included her work in another exhibition at the MoMA, this time in the landmark exhibition, The Family of Man.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gita some ten years or so ago at a gallery reception in New York City but didn’t know that I would later play a role in trying to earn for her such belated recognition of her incredible photography. My friend, Timothy Bartling, had called me up in 2002, to relate his concerns about the photographic collection of his friend, and neighbor, as he was helping to move her out of her west village apartment and into an assisted living situation. She had no immediate family that he knew of and so Timothy was acting on Gita’s behalf, managing her affairs and possessions. When it came to Gita’s photography, there were many boxes of prints and contact sheets and negatives and he wasn’t sure what, if anything, could be done with them. So, I drove from my home in Virginia with another friend and photographer, Woody Woodroof, so that we could at least make sure the work would be safely stored once Gita had vacated her apartment.

Since that somewhat unusual road trip, we have worked on this project so that other people might have the opportunity to enjoy her work as much as we do. Candela Books was founded to bring out a monograph of her work, in fall of 2010. Gitterman Gallery, in New York City, mounted a solo show of her work in September-October of 2010 which was warmly received and widely reviewed. There will be another exhibition of her work in Richmond, Virginia at Candela Books in the late spring of this year. Our hope is that her photography will continue to reach a wider audience.

In the book, I wrote that there were many times when I visited with Gita and brought her photographs along so we might spend some time going through them. And often she would be especially taken by a certain image and would look up smiling and say “Well, I must say that I was pretty damn good.” That is a sweet memory for me now and indisputably true.

We will miss you, Gita.

To learn more about Gita and her work…