Michael E. Hoffman

Michael Eugene Hoffman, publisher and curator: born New York 5 July 1942; married 1967 Katharine Carter (died 1973; one son, one daughter), 1998 Melissa Harris; died New York 23 November 2001.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Eugene Hoffman, publisher and curator: born New York 5 July 1942; married 1967 Katharine Carter (died 1973; one son, one daughter), 1998 Melissa Harris; died New York 23 November 2001.

Michael E. Hoffman was a brave, bold and occasionally bloody-minded photography publisher. He directed Aperture, the magazine and book imprint based in New York. He was also curator of photography for many years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the friend, champion and later executor of the great American photographer Paul Strand.

Hoffman moved mountains to create marvellous publications – over 450 books and exhibition catalogues, plus more than 100 issues of the magazine. He charmed to raise money. He cajoled and inspired authors, photographers, designers, editors, printers and co-publishers. He was driven and visionary. He delighted and infuriated the readers of his publications and the visitors to his elegant and original exhibitions. He changed the cultural landscape and many lives for the better.

Hoffman was educated at St Lawrence University, at Canton, New York, where he studied English and Religion. He liked to reminisce sometimes about selling beads to the Indians on summer vacations in his youth, but he found his mission when he began to study with Minor White, Professor of Photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1962. He enormously admired – and in turn emulated – White's spiritual gifts, intellectual originality and visual subtlety. They worked closely together until the photographer's death in 1976.

Minor White had founded Aperture with Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and others in 1952. The magazine existed, they wrote, "to communicate with serious photographers and creative people everywhere". Under Hoffman's leadership, the magazine, which had actually ceased publication in 1964 with $25,000 debts, was not only revived, but transformed into the world's most visually stunning and editorially creative photographic magazine.

The books began in the year Hoffman became Aperture's executive director, 1965, with Edward Weston: the flame of recognition. This was a best-selling anthology of Weston's classic photographs with vivid quotations from his daybooks. Even more important was the monograph Diane Arbus published in association with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1972. Arbus had committed suicide the previous year.

John Szarkowski, the Modern's director of photography at the time, recalls that, four months before the show was due to open in December 1972, there seemed no possibility of getting a book published. The work had no takers among the publishers on Madison Avenue, nor in Europe. Szarkowski reflected gloomily that, if a book could not be published for a memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, would a book of Arbus's startlingly original photographs ever see the light of day? He happened to mention the problem to Hoffman, showed him the photographs and saw the young publisher set to work, producing in time for the show one of the greatest – and most influential – of all photographic books. Looking back on this saga, Szarkowski remarked: "No one was a villain – but Michael was a hero."

I got to know Michael Hoffman in 1975 and worked with him very cordially on many projects over 25 years. Impatient with the limited ambition of English photography publishing, as I saw it at the time, I flew on impulse to New York in 1982 to talk to Hoffman about a project.

I was thrilled by the "telegrams and anger" atmosphere of the Aperture offices, where Hoffman laid out pictures alongside the production-whiz Steve Baron, the calm and collected designer Wendy Byrne and the editorial powerhouse Carole Kismaric. Hoffman worked with many gifted colleagues – but came with a health warning. He was difficult, people sighed. No doubt it was true, but if some found him bruising, others discovered the kind of publisher you dream about and a valiant friend.

He responded to my pitch and published The Golden Age of British Photography, 1839-1900 in 1984. The production, in tritone lithography, was supervised by Richard Benson and did justice to Victorian photographs for the first time. The exhibition of the book was shown, installed by Hoffman with impeccable taste, at the Philadephia Museum of Art, where it began its US tour. He came to the rescue many times, for many of us – most recently for me with "Breathless! Photography and Time" in the Canon Photography Gallery at the V&A in 2000.

Michael Hoffman produced books ranging from the pioneering French Primitive Photography in 1969 to the monumental two-volume Strand retrospective in 1972 (Paul Strand: a retrospective 1915-1968), to affordable collections of the greats, to the radical landscapes and luminous writings of Robert Adams, to edgy books like Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1989), Sally Mann's Immediate Family (1992), Nick Waplington's Living Room (1991), and classics by Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado – the list is long and pretty much global.

Hoffman said that he was becoming a curmudgeon but he remained open and energetic, in 1998 renewed and fulfilled by his marriage to Melissa Harris. Stockily built, always loaded down by books in dummy or proof on his trips to London, Frankfurt and Paris, he was a witty and engaging companion. I liked and admired him from the beginning but much, much more by the end – which has come too suddenly and too brutally soon.

Mark Haworth-Booth

Comments