American photojournalist Dan Weiner (b. New York City, NY, 12 October 1919; d. near Versailles, KY, 26 January 1959), despite a professional career that lasted only a scant ten years before his untimely death in a plane crash, remains one of the most important and most eloquent documentarians of life in the 1950s, both at home and abroad. Working during the heyday of the great picture magazines – Fortune, Collier’s, This Week, Life, and Look – he produced images, almost always of people, that are still widely recognized and reproduced half a century after his death.
Weiner’s parents were immigrants to New York City from Russia and Roumania in the early 1900s; Dan grew up on East 104th Street, a middle-class neighborhood at the time, in a brownstone that his family shared with his grandparents. He attended New York City public schools and developed an interest in painting, much to the distress of his father, who had had little success in any of the several jobs he had held. In 1934 on his fifteenth birthday, Dan received his first camera, a 9 x 12cm Voigtlander, as a gift from an uncle and began to teach himself to photograph, develop, and print his pictures.
Shortly after graduating from high school he told his father he had decided to become an artist; this led to a serious family rift, and young Dan left home to live with a fellow art student on East 10th Street. He studied painting at the Art Students League and later at the Pratt Institute, supporting himself by working during the day. He joined the Photo League, where he was associated with Paul Strand, Sol Libsohn, Dorothea Lange, and Sid Grossman, and became familiar with the work of the great photographers of the Depression era: Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lewis W. Hine, Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Brassai, and others. Soon he was teaching an advanced class at the League, while taking part in Grossman’s Documentary Class, out of which grew the “East Side Group,” photographing people and events around the lower East Side. As his wife Sandra, whom he met during this period, later wrote, it was “an inspiring period for a young photographer.”
Weiner landed a job as an assistant to a commercial photographer, but continued to shoot people around the city and in Central Park. In 1942 he and Sandra were married, and Dan made the decision to give up painting and devote himself entirely to photography. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the Army Air Force as a photographer and instructor, stationed in Georgia where Sandra was able to join him for three of those years. An Air Force buddy gave him a 35mm Contax, and although he had never before used an eye-level camera, he took to it immediately, preferring its size, convenience, and relative unobtrusiveness.
Back in New York in 1946, Weiner set up his own commercial studio, beginning by photographing women’s hats for catalogues. The following year, the Photo League found itself on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of “subversive organizations” and disbanded. In 1949 Weiner gave up his studio and turned full time to accepting assignments from the glossy picture magazines: This Week, Collier’s, and Fortune, where Walker Evans was a colleague.
Photojournalism suited him so well that he would pursue it even while on vacation: in 1950 he and Sandra took a trip to Nova Scotia, because neither of them had ever been there before, and came back with stunning pictures of people whose families had lived in the same fishing village for hundreds of years. Weiner had his first one-man show in 1953 at the Camera Club of New York; the show later traveled around the country, appearing also at Eastman House in Rochester, NY. His own travels became more and more extensive after that: he spent four months of 1954 in Europe photographing inhabitants of Rome and southern Italy; in 1956 he trekked 4000 miles through South Africa with Alan Paton (author of Cry, the Beloved Country) in preparation for their collaboration South Africa in Transition (published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956). The following year he traveled extensively through Soviet Russia, Roumania, Czechoslovakia, and Poland on assignment for Fortune Magazine, returning with striking photos of people great and small, including Soviet Premier Khrushchev as he met with Poland’s Premier Gomulka.
In 1956 Weiner covered the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott for Collier’s, taking many historic photos of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates. Other significant projects of his were a photo essay on an old folks’ home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, coverage of flood devastation in Mondamin, Iowa, and an examination of suburban life in Forest Park, Illinois. His portraits of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Judge Learned Hand remain definitive.
Photographs by Dan Weiner appear on the album pages of the website at MasterworksBroadway.com for Kismet (1952 – a portrait of Joan Diener as Lalume), Candide (1956), and Oh, Kay!
– Lucy E. Cross, with thanks to John Broderick