Obituary: Lucien Aigner
Wednesday 31 March 1999
All of his images - whether a statement about world peace in one of his series at the League of Nations in the Twenties, his coverage of people and life in France, England and the United States in the Thirties, his unforgettable essays on La Guardia's City Hall, Riker's Island Prison, pre-Second World War Harlem, Einstein at work, and prayers on D-Day in the Forties, or his photography of children in the Fifties and Sixties - are meaningful because Aigner committed himself to film only after he had made up his mind what he wanted to say.
His portraits possess an impressive vitality be they of the world's famous - Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Gandhi, the Roosevelts, Haile Selassie and other major figures of the time - or of his friends and neighbours in The Berkshires of Massachusetts. He was primarily a thinker and philosopher and only then a photographer.
The seminal German picture magazines of the early Thirties and the invention of a small camera, the Leica, spawned a select group of key photographers: Erich Salomon, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Lucien Aigner is of that vintage, but is one of the least known "pioneers of photojournalism".
It was the acknowledged "god- father of photojournalism", Stefan Lorant, who commented of his fellow countryman: "What sets him apart from other 'picture takers' is his fervent dedication to his work. He belongs to a minuscule band of camera artists who do not press the button in a mad rush but ponder and think before they let the shutter go."
Ladislas (Lucien) Aigner was born in Ersekujvr in Hungary, now Nove Zamky, Czechoslovakia, in 1901. He emigrated to the United States in 1939, becoming naturalised in 1945. As with many of his contemporaries photography was not the profession for which he originally trained. He studied at Prague University in 1920; theatre and acting at Friedrich Wilhelm University and Reichersche Dram Hochschule, Berlin, between 1921 and 1922; and then law at the University of Budapest between 1922 and 1924.
Aigner was part of the creative explosion of Hungarian talent that dispersed during the Twenties through the cultural capitals of Europe. He was intrigued as to why the Hungarians were so strong in what was to become photojournalism, and believed that he belonged to a nation of storytellers who learned their trade through spending hours in the coffee houses. Though superficial as an art form, for him photojournalism was only another way of storytelling.
"While I have a great respect for the photographic medium," Aigner observed, "I feel that pictures are not enough to say what needs saying. I have always been suspicious of the cliche about one picture being worth a thousand words." Perhaps that is why Aigner was equally at home using both photographs and words. He became a writer for Az Est, a Hungarian newspaper group in Budapest, in 1924 even before he had considered using a camera seriously. It was to give him an edge over his contemporaries who were absorbed only in images and visual picture stories. Aigner was interested in the total integration of images and text.
Living in Paris in the Thirties provided opportunity for him to work freelance. This was to be his most prolific period and he contributed features to the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, the Munchner Illustrierte Presse, VU, L'Illustration, Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput, and Picture Post.
In 1939 he moved to the heady excitement of New York. He continued to freelance but not always successfully. Technically an "enemy alien" and prohibited from photographing war-related subjects, he turned his attention elsewhere.
Talking of his Harlem, New York, photographs he observed, "I photographed black people when it was not good manners". For Aigner, these were commercially lean years when he often struggled to make a living. "I sometimes hated photography. It caused me too much suffering, too many frustrations." His early work consistently shows a sense of humour, often with a sardonic edge and a remarkable gestural quality that compensates in energy for what is lost in detail. Later photographs of the New York period reflect the more formal style of American magazine photography, indicative of a more conscious relationship between photographer and subject and a more directorial attitude.
By 1947 Aigner's career as a full-time photojournalist was virtually at an end and during the next six years he crafted words again as announcer, scriptwriter and producer-director in the Hungarian section of the Voice of America. For Aigner this was "a glorious experience" and "the discovery of a new world" which ended in the political backwash of the McCarthy witch-hunts of the Fifties.
Aigner visited Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at the tail-end of the summer of 1954 and found harmony in this region of outstanding natural beauty. The Berkshires had long been the home of well-known figures in the arts. Nearby, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Tanglewood Tales, Anslin Phelps Stokes penned his monumental Church and State volumes and Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick. A few miles to the north is Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra gives concerts throughout the summer months. Yet another mid-European's wanderings were over when, the same year, at Great Barrington, he opened his commercial studio consisting of two floodlights and a Rolleiflex.
This peaceful studio was not the end of Aigner's European adventures, rather it became the centre of them. In 1970 he opened a battered old suitcase which had survived the Nazi occupation and been brought out of Paris by his brother, Etienne (better known for his exclusive leather goods), after the Liberation. Inside were about 50,000 negatives, the entire product of Aigner's European career. Finding this treasure trove coincided with an increased awareness and value of the photographic print and he began to develop his entire collection - about 100,000 negatives including his work in the United States - as a major source of historic documentation.
"Pictures produce impact, writing adds meaning. Pictures without words are often ambiguous, words without pictures lame. To gather material for a written story requires painstaking, continuous effort in time while catching situations in pictures requires concentration on the instantaneous." Uniquely Lucien Aigner did both.
Ladislas (Lucien) Aigner, photojournalist: born Ersekujvr, Hungary 14 September 1901; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Waltham, Massachusetts 29 March 1999.
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