Friday, January 22, 2016

Lucien Aigner

Originally published on January 9th, 2015 

"Pictures produce impact, writing adds meaning. Pictures without words are often ambiguous, words without pictures lame."

He was a small, natty man in a beret.  He would have looked at home in the French countryside, strolling with purpose towards the town.  With a showier wardrobe, he could have been Hercule Poirot.  I had one of the best afternoons of my life with him.

As it was, he didn't live in France, but in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a pokey railroad town with a large number of increasingly geriatric hippies that was just beginning to be discovered by an annoying collection of New Yorkers.  His home, which was also his studio, was just off the main street and in easy walking distance from his familiar hangouts.  On any given day, Lucien would be seen at the local coffee house, the provencal restaurant, the bookstore, the library and, on Sundays, at the Episcopal Church. 

I once asked him why he attended the Episcopal church on Main Street.  He told me that his late wife was an Episcopalian and he had fallen into the habit of walking there on Sunday mornings to listen to the music, which he appreciated.  After services he also enjoyed the whole notion of a "coffee hour" where, as he said, "The coffee and conversation are of a high quality." 

I wasn't sure of his age, although I guessed he was in his 70's [I was off by about twenty years].  He no longer drove, so from time to time, especially as I worked in a school in those days and had weekends and summers off, I would drive him to the supermarket or to a bookstore in the northern part of town.

One year, due to the generosity of one of my wife's cousins, we wound up with season tickets to Tanglewood, the music venue that is the summer home of the Boston Symphony and hosts a variety of other orchestras, quartets, soloists and pop acts during the season.  It was common for us to take along a picnic lunch after my wife had concluded her church services and spend some pleasant afternoons on the great lawn.  When I mentioned this to Lucien, he asked if he could hitch a ride some Sunday and I said, "Sure". 

That Sunday came and I found myself behind Lucien in the season ticket holders' line.  I assumed that he had a ticket but, to my surprise, and to that of the ticket taker, he pulled from his ancient wallet an even more ancient press card from a magazine that was not only German, but I think had ceased publication around the time I was born.  I thought it might disintegrate upon contact with the air.  It looked like some artifact drawn from a forgotten shelf in an archaeology museum [That's about right, actually].  In a spiel that was carefully rehearsed, balanced in its use of persuasive language and enlivened by Lucien's continental charm, he managed to get past the gate attendant, the usher, and the guard and join us in the season ticket holder's private seating area.

As a former reporter, I confessed to how much I admired his technique.  His response remains a classic: "That was nothing compared to sneaking into the League of Nations."

Lucien Aigner was born in 1901 in what was then Austria-Hungary.  He was from a family that was prominent in the shoe industry [his younger brother, Etienne, was the founder of a famous house of luxury leather goods].  He rather disappointed his family when, at the age of nine and in possession of an early Brownie camera, he informed them it was his intention to be a reporter who also took photos.  Little did they realize that, once he had upgraded to a Leica, their son would create the entire field of photojournalism.

Lucien told me of his photo technique, that lazy summer Sunday on the lawn at Tanglewood, in that the secret was always to observe the hand gestures of the subject.  Their motion, more than facial expression or body attitude, indicated that an expression or gesture was about to be made that would allow the photo to have animation and resonance.

For example, the photo of Mussolini above, the one that would advance Lucien into the top rank of news photographers in the 1930's.  While it may appear that Il Duce was expressing his distaste for something before him, in fact he was about to sneeze.  The photo made the cover of Life magazine.

When that failed, it was also good to ask the subject a difficult or troubling question, something designed to annoy them for a moment.  Again, in that second of reaction, their mask would drop and their essence revealed.  For example, this is what happened to Fiorello LaGuardia when he shared a limousine with Lucien:

Or, when one interrupts Einstein when he's on his third pipe and on the verge of solving the riddle of the universe:

Lucien Aigner's photos are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert in London, and in galleries and smaller collections that specialize in the photographic arts.  I once found an Aigner portrait of Haile Selassie hanging in a small historical society in the Caribbean. 

There are many, many resources online that display the full range of the subjects.  Many of those photos I helped Lucien catalog while he was still living in his home/studio in Great Barrington.  They were stored in trunk after unopened trunk, still bearing travel stickers of the sort that had fallen out of use earlier in the century.  At least one trunk contained photos he had not himself seen in sixty years.  Personally, after combing through his collection, I always thought that his best work was of decidedly non-famous people:

Like this guy

Lucien would eventually move to an assisted living community elsewhere in Massachusetts, where he would die in 1999.  A very complete obituary appeared in the New York Times shortly afterwards; it marked well his contribution to journalism and the art of the camera.

On the occasions when I drive along Great Barrington's Main Street, I still sometimes absent-mindedly look for the natty man in the beret, walking with the memories of his times and those remarkable people, common and uncommon, whose visage he made eternal.