The New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer once aptly described Evelyn Hofer as ‘the most famous unknown photographer in America.’ Hofer was a prolific photographer whose work appeared in publications including LIFE, The New York Times Magazine, and Vogue. Her work frequently illustrated literary travel writing and she was one of the first practitioners to adopt colour for fine art photography. In spite of this, Hofer has not been granted the attention afforded her male peers.
Born in 1922, Hofer spent the first eleven years of her life in Germany, until her family fled the Nazis. The Hofers initially settled in Switzerland, where Evelyn developed an interest in photography, securing an apprenticeship at Studio Bettina and taking private lessons with leading New Objectivity photographer Hans Finsler. The family later relocated, first to Spain and then – after Franco came to power – to Mexico. It was in Mexico that Hofer first began working as a professional photographer, taking the images that later formed the basis of her first book The Pleasures of Mexico (1957).
In 1946, Hofer moved to New York, where she began to work for Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, and became closely acquainted with a number of artists. These included Saul Steinberg and Richard Lindner, the latter of whom she credited with teaching her ‘how to look.’ In the late 1950s, she was commissioned to produce images for Mary McCarthy’s book The Stones of Florence (1959). The book was well-received and Hofer’s images widely praised; she was subsequently commissioned to illustrate other literary travel works including V. S. Pritchett’s London Perceived (1962) and Jan Morris’ The Presence of Spain (1964).
Though much of Hofer’s work might be classified as ‘street photography,’ the dynamism and sense of chance associated with that genre are conspicuously absent from her images. Using an unwieldy 4 x 5 inch viewfinder camera, Hofer’s approach was necessarily exacting; the final images have a sense of composure and careful study.
This sense of careful consideration continued throughout her career. In her later years, Hofer worked on a series of still-life compositions inspired by seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish paintings. Here, bowls of glistening fruit and flowers glow against deep, inky black backgrounds in the manner of Ambrosius Bosschaert or Fede Galizia.