Written By: Liz Ronk
If one had to choose a single photographer whose work would serve as a visual biography of New York City in its postwar Golden Age when Gotham became, in a sense, the capital of the world, the name Andreas Feininger would have to be in the mix. Paris-born, raised in Germany and, for a time, a cabinet-maker and architect trained in the Bauhaus, Feininger’s pictures of New York in the 1940s and ’50s helped define, for all time, not merely how a great 20th century city looked, but how it imagined itself and its place in the world. With its traffic-jammed streets, gritty waterfronts, iconic bridges and inimitable skyline, the city assumed the character of a vast, vibrant landscape.
Individual New Yorkers, meanwhile, were often an afterthought: it was form, pattern and, perhaps above all else, scale that Feininger sought. Human beings might have built this thrilling, sprawling, purposeful urban panorama, but their presence in Feininger’s pictures was not necessary; their handiwork would suffice. (In fact, in his single most famous portrait of a person, his 1955 photo of the young photographer Dennis Stock, Feininger obscures or, more accurately, replaces the human face with the clean, mechanistic contours of a camera.)
Of course, no one who worked on staff for LIFE as Feininger did for almost two decades—and 340 assignments—from 1943 until 1962, could be defined by a single topic.
Fascinated from the time he was a young boy in Germany by the natural world, Feininger made beautiful pictures of the skeletons and bones of animals, snakes and birds, investing them with an austere power that the creatures perhaps lacked when alive and covered with flesh, fur, feathers or scales. His 1956 picture of Niagara Falls in winter, with two small human forms silhouetted against a scene, might have been lifted from the last Ice Age, while one of his most famous and most frequently reproduced photographs—Route 66 in 1947 Arizona—somehow manages to reference, in a single frame, the allure of the open road, the confluence of the man-made and natural worlds and the myth of the inexhaustible American West.
The author of more than 30 books including at least one acknowledged classic, the autobiography Andreas Feininger: Photographer (1966) Feininger’s photographs were shown in solo and group shows in places as diverse as the Museum of Natural History, the International Center of Photography, MoMa, the Whitney, the Metropolitan, the Smithsonian and in smaller galleries and exhibitions around the world. A retrospective of his six-decade career, featuring 80 of his own favorite black-and-white pictures from 1928 through 1988, toured Europe in the late 1990s.
Andreas Feininger died in Manhattan in February 1999, at the age of 92.