Hofer, Evelyn

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Hofer, Evelyn

German-born photographer who specialized in portraits, architectural documentation, and book illustrations . Born in Marburg, Germany; attended Salem School, in southern Germany; studied piano in Madrid, Switzerland, and at the Paris Conservatory of Music; married Humphrey Sutton.

Photographer Evelyn Hofer, who avoids revealing her date of birth, was born in Marburg, Germany, in the 1920s. As a young girl, she attended a small progressive school in southern Germany and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. In 1933, one step ahead of the Nazi Party, the Hofers fled Germany for Spain, settling in Madrid. Hofer continued to immerse herself in music and, after studying in Madrid and Switzerland, entered the Paris Conservatory. When she failed a major exam to determine the extent of her talent, she decided on a career in photography and threw herself into this new pursuit with the zeal that had once been reserved for her music. After serving apprenticeships at two commercial photographic studios in Zurich, Switzerland, Hofer moved with her family to Mexico City, where she tried her hand at freelancing. "I encountered so much opposition because I was a woman that I couldn't get assignments," she later recalled. "But I was determined to be a photographer and no amount of Latin parochialism was going to stop me." She finally landed a job at a second-rate magazine, where she worked for four years while expanding her portfolio. When she felt she was ready, she packed up and headed for New York.

Two weeks after her arrival, Hofer met Alexei Brodovich, the progressive fashion designer and art director of Harper's Bazaar. He loved her work and hired her on the spot as a fashion photographer. For the next three years, Hofer worked for Harper's, learning to work with models, to shoot for mood, and to present a concept and sell an idea through pictures. Although successful in the fashion industry (her work also appeared in Vogue), Hofer grew to hate its pretensions and longed to photograph everyday life and people. Her opportunity came when Mary McCarthy asked her to travel to Italy to shoot photographs for The Stones ofFlorence, a book McCarthy had been commissioned to write. The resulting 1959 publication was an immediate success and propelled Hofer's career. She subsequently collaborated on five more books: London Perceived, New York Proclaimed, The Evidence of Washington, and Dublin: A Portrait (all with V.S. Pritchett), and The Presence of Spain (with James Morris). In addition, her work was seen in some of the nation's top magazines.

During the 1960s, Hofer was a regular photographer for Life magazine, and she also created essays for Time-Life Books, Life Special Reports series, and The New York Times Magazine. The subjects of her photographic essays included Michelangelo, Arthur Rubinstein, life in English prisons, and ghost towns. Known for the brilliant graphic fidelity of her photographs (accomplished with a 4"x5" view-camera), Hofer scorned what she referred to as pretty "postcard" pictures and often spent hours at a location, searching for the one glossy that would tell a story. In 1974, Jim Mencarelli, of the Grand Rapids Press, accompanied the photographer as she was shooting background pictures for an article on then Vice President Gerald R. Ford in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hofer visited Ford's old Boy Scout camp on Duck Lake, just north of Muskegon. After spending the day inspecting the half-dozen buildings left standing on the site, she found nothing meaningful to shoot. Just as she was packing up, she wandered past the abandoned dining hall and discovered an old council pit, ringed by tiers of logs, where meetings and initiation ceremonies had been held. "It is perfect," she said. She could envision Ford, standing in the center, facing his group. "He was an Eagle Scout, a leader. Surely, he would've had occasion to address his troop."

Hofer, who at one time lived with her husband Humphrey Sutton in an artist colony on West Street in New York, also painted, spent time at her beloved piano, and loved traveling. Open and friendly, she is fond of discourse, except when working. Then, according to Mencarelli, "she becomes a machine; to some a tyrant, to others a true artist in the singleminded search [for] graphic perfection. When she works, … she seems to embody the Zen purity of absolute union between master and subject." Evelyn Hofer had solo exhibitions at the Witkin Gallery in New York in 1977, throughout the 1980s, and as late as 1991. In 1974, the photographer was honored at the Art Institute of Chicago with a solo showing of her work.


Mencarelli, Jim. "Evelyn Hofer," in The Grand Rapids [Michigan] Press. June 30, 1974.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts