Louis Stettner was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1922 of immigrant Austrian parents. His photographic career spanned 70 years, and started at the age of thirteen with the gift of a box camera from his father and the discovery of an article by American photographer Paul Outerbridge Jr., describing the great potential of photography for interpreting the world. Throughout his teenage years, Stettner immersed himself in photography by frequenting the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz and the print room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he methodically worked his way through the complete history of American photography by studying original prints and back issues of the photographic journal Camera Work. After having enlisted in the army (1940-41) and serving as a combat photographer with the US Infantry in the Pacific (1942-45) during the Second World War, Stettner left his homeland in 1947 on a three-week trip to Paris which extended into five years. Here Stettner became an active and valued member of the local post-war photography scene, photographing the city constantly. During this time he worked as a freelance photographer for various magazines in Europe and the US and studied Photography and Cinema at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC) (1947-49). In 1952 Stettner returned to the US, where he found a night job at a security company, roaming the streets by day with his camera. To supplement his income, he photographed for magazines and advertising agencies. From 1952 to 1965 he regularly travelled to photograph Paris, Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Mexico. In 1990 Stettner returned to France permanently to photograph, paint and sculpt in Saint-Ouen, near Paris.
Born in Brooklyn, US in 1922
Died in Paris, France in 2016
“Stettner has always been fully conscious that the role of the photographer is not to turn away from all reference to reality, but on the contrary to express a profound experience with it.” - Brassaï, in his introduction to Early Joys, Photographs from 1947-1972, 1987
Stettner’s photographic approach was strongly influenced by the Photo League, a cooperative of photographers in New York active in the field of social conscious photography (1936-51). Stetttner joined the League in 1939 and attended their classes in photography. Later on, in 1947, he would teach there himself. Through the Photo League, Stettner was exposed to the work of among others Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, and Sid Grossman and became close friends with Paul Strand and Weegee. On his first trip to Paris in 1947, Stettner received a commission from the League to gather prints from significant French photographers (Izis, Doisneau, Ronis, Masclet, etc.) and to organize the first exhibition of contemporary French photography in the US at the League’s gallery (1948). The experience of selecting these photographs was the beginning of several vital friendships with French photographers, like Brassai and Boubat. It was during this period of McCarthyism in the US that Stettner while photographing for the Marshall Plan, was questioned by the Paris office of the FBI about his association with the Photo League, which was accused of communist sympathies and anti-American activities and which was eventually blacklisted and banned. Stettner was fired from his post for not cooperating and revealing the political views of fellow Photo League members.