Two German teenage lovers rambled across Europe in the 1920s, sleeping under bridges and scratching out a living taking pictures of fellow bohemians as well as struggling laborers. But as Hitler rose to power, Hansel Mieth(1909-1998) and Otto Hagel fled to America and carried on their work in California, documenting working conditions on farms and fishing boats. She landed a job at the Works Progress Administration, then at LIFE, and he became a famous photographer in his own right. According to Mieth, they married to appease LIFE editors in a hasty dual-wedding ceremony in which Robert Capa also got hitched—strictly for American citizenship. After Mieth extensively photographed a rhesus monkey study, she was furious that LIFE editors ran only one picture: a sullen, runaway rhesus she had pursued into the water. Although it became her most iconic image, she resented it: “I call him the monkey on my back.”
Wartime prejudices faced by the German-born Mieth and her husband helped them empathize with the plight of Japanese-Americans. LIFE assigned the duo to photograph the internment camps, but then declined to run the story. For the article “We Return to Fellbach” they explored the postwar emotions in their hometown 20 years after they had left. A few weeks before the story ran, Mieth’s sister died of heart disease.
—Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers