Miles Ladin's blog

Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Profile on Photographer Lisl Steiner for the Swiss publication Tachles

It’s the eve of Lisl Steiner’s 90th birthday and the photographer is headed with friends to celebrate at the Sacker Hotel’s legendary Blaue Bar in Vienna. Whether or not she will be blowing out that many candles from atop the hotel’s famed Sachertorte, it would come as no surprise to see this vivacious senior and self described “Scheherazade of Photography” dancing on the tables and reminiscing about some of her famous subjects. They have included Fidel Castro, Nat King Cole, and Indira Gandhi to name but a few. Other subjects including Leonard Bernstein and The Kennedys have actually stayed at the Sacker. Perhaps these former hotel regulars will be there in spirit, raising a glass, and listening with rapt attention as Steiner tells her tales of dictators and maestros…ninety years in the making.

When I first meet the Austrian born Steiner at her current residence in Pound Ridge, New York, I am greeted by an exotic 89 year old seductress wearing (literally) the mask of Mona Lisa! The enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous subject is in a way apropos for Steiner who often seems both savvy and naïve at the same time. She described herself to me as “open” in regards to the political leanings of her famous subjects as well as life in general. Whether or not this is a pose, it has faired her well in a life of making portraits of notable figures on the world’s stage. Having been a celebrity photographer myself, I know very well that gaining access and confidence are of primary importance to the vocation. Steiner’s pragmatic non-judgement attitude has assisted her in gaining the trust of her subjects and allowing her entrée through the doors of both the Oval Office and soccer stadium locker rooms alike.

It is also this temperament that has allowed her to stay grounded, jubilant and most surprisingly of all without cynicism. Talking with Steiner, I don’t notice any of the battle scars or bitterness that one would expect from a member of her generation who was displaced from WWII Europe, lived through the era of South American authoritarian rule and witnessed first hand the America of Nixon. Steiner has had a truly fascinating journey of a life that has taken her from Europe on the eve of war to Peron’s Argentina and to a United States ravaged by assassinations and political machinations. She has borne witness through the lens of a camera and more recently with her storytelling of tales both tall and small.

In 1938, the year Germany invaded Austria, Steiner’s Catholic father and Jewish Mother took the family and emigrated from Vienna to Buenos Aires. Her memories when looking back at that time seem idyl and sheltered. The grim reality of being Jewish in 1938 Vienna would have certainly been of concern to her parents and despite Steiner’s child-like explanation would have most probably precipitated the move. As a teen she was relatively insulated from the reality of what was happening in Europe. Into her 20’s Steiner studied art and was involved with the Arte Madi movement that championed Geometric Abstraction as well as other art forms such as dance.

It was in 1945 that Steiner started an eight year period working for the Argentine film industry in the creation of 50 film documentaries. While working on these “historical” films as Steiner refers to them, she assisted the German film producer/director Karl Ritter. Before emigrating to Argentina, Ritter had been responsible for many Nazi propaganda films and was an important member of the National Socialist Party. His anti-humanistic philosophy while filming for the Third Reich was bleak: “"My movies deal with the unimportance of the individual—all that is personal must be given up for our cause.” When I asked Steiner if this former Nazi ideologue shared with Steiner his creative philosophy while they were producing Peron’s state sponsored cinematic propaganda my question fell on deaf ears. Instead, the recollection she did share evoked a possible film scene cut from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” where Steiner’s character covertly helped Ritter pick up some contraband film equipment from the airport. One of many tales told with bravado and her seductive Mona Lisa smile.

Having been perhaps restless with the limitations of creating this sort of government sanctioned filmmaking, Steiner’s headset of being “open” allowed her to grab hold of a fortuitous opportunity which was the starting point for her exciting career in photojournalism. In 1955 a military coup overthrew Juan Peron’s regime and saw General Aramburu become President of Argentina. Solely on a tip, the 28 year old Steiner followed Aramburu with her Leica to a fishing trip to Ushuaia. The extraordinary photographic capture of a military general and state president at leisure wowed the editors at Henry Luce’s Time and Life magazines. Steiner was on her way.

Assignments from the powerhouse publisher’s South American offices soon followed as did freelance work for US publications including Newsweek and The New York Times. Her career has included being a staff photographer for the Brazilian illustrated weekly magazine O’Cruzeiro and having her work distributed by the esteemed Keystone Press Agency. During a time that was still during the heyday of magazine publishing, these illustrious mastheads provided the credentials that allowed Steiner to document a large swath of 20th century movers and shakers.

Possibly the most famous subject that she photographed on multiple occasions was Fidel Castro whom Steiner refers to as “My Revolutionary.” Not considering him a dictator or viewing his Cuban subjects as being repressed, Steiner’s photographs are full of adulation and portray Castro looking quite heroic. Her most reproduced portrait of the leader was also a happy accident in the making. On the day of the shoot, before Castro was scheduled to arrive on the scene, Steiner had inadvertently placed back into her camera film she had already exposed. The resulting picture has a dreamlike quality which places the main subject in a space that seems to be both indoors and outdoors. The leader is seemingly spotlit and surrounded with a multitude of apparitions whose flickering visages come into view thanks to the double exposure. Steiner described herself to me as an autodidact and a technical naif in regards to the photographic medium and this tale bellies the point but also celebrates the idea of synchronicity and accidents within the creation of her art.

The unplanned Magic Realism aesthetic created in the Castro image must have appealed to Steiner when photographing another famous subject, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. This giant of 20th century literature was a brilliant but blind curmudgeon. Upon first meeting Borges, Steiner brashly requested the author write a new poem about children for a project she was creating. Besides famously hating soccer as well as tango, Borges was no fan of children either and bruskly rebuffed the request. Upon a second visit, he asked Steiner to read to him “Battlefield at Hastings” from a book of poetry by Heinrich Heine. Her eloquent recitation had Borges in tears after which he succumbed to her previous request and on a third visit handed over the verse:
Not a day passes but that a child discovers the world, even as Adam did. Let us do our utmost to make him feel that he is in paradise. 

The poetic contribution was for Steiner’s long term project “The Children of the Americas”. A respite from photographing the famous and powerful, her children pictures join a larger group of ordinary folks such as cleaning ladies, chimney sweeps, and hotel receptionists that Steiner has also documented throughout her life. This magnum opus showcasing the indomitable spirit of children throughout North, South, and Central America has yet to be edited and published. This is yet another milestone for the artist to look forward to in the hopefully not too distant future.

The 1960s brought Steiner to the USA and the tumultuous times of American Civil Rights and other upheavals. She was able to photograph both Martin Luther King Jr. and later Jackie Kennedy attending his 1968 funeral. The days for photojournalists were much easier; a credential whisked Steiner into the White House and a polite smile allowed her upstairs to the Carlyle Hotel in NYC where she was able to candidly capture Robert F. Kennedy greeting a visiting group of children from Ireland. She was a regular at the United Nations and unlike today access was easy.

The Nixon Years (of which “Tricky Dick” was also humorously documented in pictures) coincided with the early years of her 25 year long marriage to medical psychoanalyst Michael Meyer Monchek. In 1992 Monchek suffered a stroke and Steiner decided to film with video the six week dying process as it was happening. Being married to someone who helps those with neurosis and herself being extremely well adjusted, must have allowed Steiner to have had the courage to film his demise as well as inhabit the removed gaze that is to some extent necessary to make any kind of art. This fascinating if perhaps morbid piece is currently being edited and is another project waiting for its audience.

Other film work has included shorts for the Caramoor Music Festival in Katonah, New York, where she was their Chronicler-in Residence for many years. This position of honor included not just the creation of films but drawings which have been an important part of Steiner’s oeuvre since her student days in Argentina. Music has always been central to this artist’s life and it was first encountered at Buenos Aires’ Colona Opera House. It was there that she sketched ink portraits of notable classical music conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, and Otto Klemperer. 

Another famed conductor whom Steiner sketched at the Colona was conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. This controversial figure who was the subject of the play and film “Taking Sides” also ended up being the best man at Steiner’s first wedding. Although others in her generation heatedly judged Furtwangler for his purported participation and collaboration at a handful old Third Reich concerts, Steiner stays out of it stating “Of this period I didn’t judge.”

When talking about Furtwangler or other subjects it was very rare for Steiner to let her guard down and offer an opinion or political assessment. In fact her mantra of “I don’t judge anything” is one in which she repeats again and again. There were a couple instances however when the Octogenarian did at least for a moment drop her Mona Lisa smile. When looking at her 1976 photograph of Henry Kissinger she angrily declaimed that “if he went to Europe they would put him in jail…he’s a criminal… Nelson Rockefeller made him and he only had a PHD!” Later in a more zen like posit the current US President was assessed: “Donald trump is not only a narcissist but a crazy guy…but people are not crazy all the time, he makes sense some of the time and reaches all these people who thinks he’s doing great stuff.”

Although a photo shoot with Trump is probably not in the works (to our chagrin), Steiner has a lot more to celebrate than just her upcoming birthday. In the last few years there have been accolades and accomplishments showcasing her photographic works and the anecdotes surrounding them. She’s just returned from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia where her latest exhibition opened. The show includes 60 photographs from collection of the Austrian National Library. Recent displays of her work have included participation in the “Expressions” group show which included the prominent installation of her Fidel Castro portrait in Vienna’s Judenplatz. In 2015, an impressive 224 page monograph titled “Lisl Baby” by the Austrian publisher Edition Lammerhuber was released bringing her work to a wider audience. The tome includes the artist’s musings about her life and work as well as self-portraits, sketches, and plenty of her photojournalistic treasures. As for the future, a long-term documentary film on the artist is wrapping up and will feature the artist weaving together her 1001 tales or at the very least a strong 90!

Miles Ladin has photographed celebrities for over 20 years for publications including The New York Times, W Magazine, and WWD.  Although he has yet to meet a dictator he's certainly shot a lot of A-listers who have acted like one!

Fidel Castro, 1959 by Lisl Steiner

Leonard Bernstein, 1963 by Lisl Steiner

Erich Kleiber by Lisl Steiner

Wilhelm Furtwangler by Lisl Steiner

Lisl Steiner, 2017  by Miles Ladin

Lisl Steiner as Mona Lisa, 2017 by Miles Ladin


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