Monday, February 21, 2011

Gita Lenz (1910 - 2011)

(This from an announcement sent out January 28, 2011)

I am saddened to relate the recent passing of Gita Lenz.

Gita died peacefully on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at a nursing home in New York City.

Gita Lenz lived most of her life in Greenwich Village on the corner of Carmine and 7th Avenue. From the 1940s through the mid-1960s, Gita created a body of work that withstands comparison to many of the better known photographers of the time. A self-described "Sunday photgrapher" in the 1940s, her work was often characterized by an interest in the city and life around her. While the social documentary tradition definitely had a distinct influence early on, Gita would soon take an interest in abstraction, isolating aspects both in nature and in the urban environment, stripping away details, framing images unconventionally and adding new depth and meaning to mundane and dilapidated subjects. Gita would go on to work professionally for commercial and editorial clients in the 50s and 60s.

In 1951, following the seminal exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America at the Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen curated the exhibition Abstraction in Photography, and included Lenz’s work alongside that of many other notable photographers of the period. For Steichen, the exhibition was meant as a response to the “sensitive reportorial photography” of the period and featured “the work of photographers concerned with evolving another reality by probing into the realm of the abstract.” The first major exhibition of Lenz’s work was in a three-person show, The Third Eye with John Reed and Don Normark, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1952. Soon after, in 1955, Steichen included her work in another exhibition at the MoMA, this time in the landmark exhibition, The Family of Man.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gita some ten years or so ago at a gallery reception in New York City but didn't know that I would later play a role in trying to earn for her such belated recognition of her incredible photography. My friend, Timothy Bartling, had called me up in 2002, to relate his concerns about the photographic collection of his friend, and neighbor, as he was helping to move her out of her west village apartment and into an assisted living situation. She had no immediate family that he knew of and so Timothy was acting on Gita's behalf, managing her affairs and possessions. When it came to Gita's photography, there were many boxes of prints and contact sheets and negatives and he wasn't sure what, if anything, could be done with them. So, I drove from my home in Virginia with another friend and photographer, Woody Woodroof, so that we could at least make sure the work would be safely stored once Gita had vacated her apartment.

Since that somewhat unusual road trip, we have worked on this project so that other people might have the opportunity to enjoy her work as much as we do. Candela Books was founded to bring out a monograph of her work, in fall of 2010. Gitterman Gallery, in New York City, mounted a solo show of her work in September-October of 2010 which was warmly received and widely reviewed. There will be another exhibition of her work in Richmond, Virginia at Candela Books in the late spring of this year. Our hope is that her photography will continue to reach a wider audience.

In the book, I wrote that there were many times when I visited with Gita and brought her photographs along so we might spend some time going through them. And often she would be especially taken by a certain image and would look up smiling and say "Well, I must say that I was pretty damn good." That is a sweet memory for me now and indisputably true.

~ G.S.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Book Release Reception on September 22nd

Press Release from Gitterman Gallery

image copyright Gita Lenz

Gita Lenz

September 23 – November 20, 2010

Gallery Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 11 to 6 p.m. & by appointment

Gitterman Gallery is proud to present an exhibition of vintage black and white photographs by Gita Lenz. The exhibition will open with a reception and book release on Wednesday, September 22rd from 6 to 8 p.m. and continue through Saturday, November 20th.

From the 1940s to the early 1960s, Gita Lenz (b. 1910) created a body of work that withstands comparison to many of the better-known photographers of the time. Aaron Siskind was both a friend and strong influence. Like Siskind, who started out as a social documentarian and member of the Photo League in New York, Lenz’s work ranges from the humanist to the abstract. She spent much of her time making images of the people and the city around her. Also, like Siskind, Lenz explored abstraction, both in nature and in the urban environment, frequently making complex and beautiful images of mundane and dilapidated subjects. Some images are tender, demonstrating a sense of empathy and respect, and others are dynamic, suggesting a modernist and sometimes surreal perspective.

Gita Lenz moved to an apartment at the corner of Carmine Street and 7th Avenue in 1940. Soon after, Lenz began photographing infrequently and informally, but by the 1950s she was working professionally and receiving recognition.

In 1951, following the seminal exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America at the Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen curated the exhibition Abstraction in Photography, and included Lenz’s work alongside work by Erwin Blumenfeld, Josef Breitenbach, Alexey Brodovitch, Harry Callahan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ralston Crawford, Walker Evans, Lotte Jacobi, György Kepes, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Arthur Siegel, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston. For Steichen, the exhibition was meant as a response to the “sensitive reportorial photography” of the period and featured “the work of photographers concerned with evolving another reality by probing into the realm of the abstract.” The first major exhibition of Lenz’s work was in a three-person show, The Third Eye with John Reed and Don Normark, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1952. Soon after, in 1955, Edward Steichen included her work in another exhibition at the MoMA, this time in the landmark exhibition, The Family of Man.

Lenz pursued commercial and fine art photography into the early 1960s until her financial situation required her to seek a steadier income. She did, however, continue with other creative pursuits, chiefly creative writing and poetry.

When the reality of living alone in her fifth floor walkup on Carmine Street became too impractical, Timothy Bartling, who was her neighbor and had become her friend, helped Lenz move into an assisted living facility near her old neighborhood and manage her personal affairs. Bartling elicited the expertise of his friend the photographer Gordon Stettinius to archive Lenz’s work. It was the depth and quality of Lenz’s work that inspired Stettinius to found Candela Books and make Lenz’s work the subject of its first publication. Because Lenz’s memory has been fading in recent years, it is due to the efforts of Bartling and Stettinius that we now know of her work and a little of the life she led.

For visuals or further information, please contact us at: 212 734 0868,, or view selections on our website at

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Introduction ~ Rough Draft

copyright Gita Lenz

Gita Lenz ~ An Introduction (draft)

I first met Gita Lenz during a show of my own work at a gallery in New York City in 2002. Gita was getting around the city in a wheelchair at this point, but along with our mutual friend, Timothy Bartling, she just seemed happy to be out on the town and to be looking at photography. She had told me then, a couple of times even, that she had been a photographer in her own right, though I didn’t know yet that I would eventually come to know her work as well as I have. Most conversations at galleries during receptions are light and airy and will usually drift away by the end of a wine-soaked evening. But speaking with Gita, I was struck by her energy and her direct appreciation, a woman in her nineties who had come out in brittle autumn weather to see an exhibition of photography in a small Greenwich Village gallery by a relatively unknown photographer. It was easy to guess that she was in her element.

Just prior to that time, Timothy had helped Gita move into a nursing home, one located near her old neighborhood. She had lived on the corner of Carmine Street and 7th Avenue for more than sixty years until, finally, the reality of living in a 5th floor walkup apartment by herself became too impractical. Married twice - her first husband, George Zoul, died in combat fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War and she married her second husband, Richard Lenz, in 1940 and divorced eighteen months later – Gita had had no children by either marriage or any other close relatives who might have helped her with the move into a more appropriate setting when the time came. So, Timothy - being a friend of hers, a concerned neighbor and an essentially caring person - took it upon himself to help Gita with this transition into assisted living and, perhaps more impressively, helped her also with her personal affairs, as he continues to do today.

It was during this transition, from apartment to nursing home, that Timothy called and reminded me of Gita and asked for my advice as to what we might do with all of her artwork and photography equipment. A couple of weeks later, I drove up to New York with a friend and began the process of packing up all of the work. We ultimately decided I would take the work home with me to Virginia for storage, mainly because I had the space to absorb a large body of photographic work and also because we felt we had to keep it somewhere safe. It amazes me to think of what might have happened to this work if none of Gita’s neighbor’s had been kind enough to take an interest in her life. Because she was essentially alone in the later years of her life, I believe she would have been forgotten almost completely.

Along with numerous boxes of prints and many, many various boxes of negatives, there were also folders of correspondence with other artists and friends, photography books, prints given to her by other photographers, rolls of undeveloped film (still undeveloped at this point) tearsheets, published articles and several folders of poetry - essentially an abundance of evidence of a rich career and a compelling personality. Developing a passionate connection to image making, sometime after she began living on her own again, Gita pursued her photography goals despite a continuing lack of income or the support that might have allowed her to continue working much further into her later years. Significantly, though, in the time she was working seriously in photography, she experienced some notable recognition and enjoyed the company and influence of some of the major personalities in photography at that time. Her first major show was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1952. Soon after, Edward Steichen included her work in the landmark exhibition, The Family of Man, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Aaron Siskind was a friend and probable influence as well during the forties and fifties as they had a sustained correspondence in addition to sharing a fairly distinct stylistic connection in their photography.

The evidence seems to indicate that Gita dedicatedly pursued photography into the early 1960’s until her financial situation finally required her to seek a steadier income working as a copywriter and taking various secretarial or bookkeeping positions. It is possible that she continued photography in some manner through later years but there is no dated work beyond the early sixties. She did, however, continue with other independent pursuits, namely creative writing and poetry, and later studied with William Packard, founder of the New York Quarterly.

Getting to know Gita herself has been the greatest pleasure throughout this experience, but the larger body of photographic work was and remains an equally exciting discovery. Since most of the prints came with very little notation, it has been a challenge to organize them in a way consistent with how Gita might like to see her work presented, and we have tried to ascertain from her which among the images she most valued, which ones belonged together, etc.. There are clues as to which prints were final and which may have been just proofs, but it should be noted that the quality of the craftsmanship is very high. These are beautiful prints to see firsthand. She was an excellent printer and the work still holds up extremely well.

Gita’s archive includes various photo essays of coal miners, taxi drivers, botanical gardens, images of children, friends, more formal portraits, the occasional self-portrait, some experimental process work, a great wealth of street photography from various New York City neighborhoods which is some of the strongest imagery and a large body of observational work that has more to do with abstract expressionism than it does with the popular genre of street photography. Her connection to Siskind appears to be an important one in that a lot of her imagery has characteristics similar to Siskind’s work, imagery that was revolutionary in its impact upon modern photography. The symbolic and abstract nature of these images was almost painterly in some instances, and had more to do with the act of seeing than with the specific subject matter. These qualities seem to be directly correlated to the mid- twentieth century movements in the New York art world, and it is this characteristic, among others, that sets Gita’s work apart from the vast majority of enthusiastic mainstream photographers of this era, who were generally setting out to document the world around them.

As we sat in Gita’s recently vacated apartment, it hit home that this project was about something larger than photography or the disposition of what might be called an estate. Without the somewhat accidental friendship that started up between a very elderly woman and Timothy, a working chef more than fifty years younger than Gita, all of this work and personal history would have been on a direct course from landlord to landfill. Maybe certain things, possibly even the photography, would have matriculated into a thrift store bin for a very different style of consumption…

No one can say for certain what might have happened. But what ultimately became clear to us, as we drank a bottle of wine and considered the material remains of a life, was that there, in those two rooms of a small New York apartment, existed almost all that was left of someone who had, and still has, a very compelling story to tell. We didn’t know very much about Gita’s earlier life but it was easy to see the intensity with which she lived. Without Gita in sound enough mind to help us with her biography, we were somewhat at a disadvantage in learning this story from the fragments available to us. And though it might seem that drawing assumptions on such scant information could lead to a speculative history at best, we definitely felt called to do something. We felt that if we could place this work in photographic collections, and perhaps publish a book like the one you are holding, then Gita’s name would still be remembered and the work she did would be available for research and appreciation and, ultimately, for posterity.

As we have worked to pull the threads of a chronology of Gita Lenz’ photographic life and to make some sense of her place in the history of photography, the fragments tell of an extremely bright and progressive person, someone who generally struggled and ultimately failed to make a lucrative career out of her passion - but more importantly, the tale also tells of someone who managed, all the same, to craft a large and impressive body of artistic work. Among her belongings, there remain many clues as to Gita’s personality and character. We found books about socialism and communism, which may have actually belonged to her first husband, given his involvement with the fight against Franco and the Spanish Nationalist Party. We found letters indicating an involvement with the civil rights movement, letters seeking small loans in hopes of buying photo supplies, poems about love and heartache and loss, self portraits, portraits of cultural peers - dancers and artists mostly unknown to us – and connections to significant personalities in the New York art world. There is so much that we will never know and I deeply regret not trying to learn more about her even just a few years earlier, when her own history might have still been available for her to share. As it stands, this is really just the tip of an almost forgotten story about someone with warmth and depth and a creative spirit and it is a small wonder that we have even this much.

Recognizing the obstacles of time and memory that we all will face eventually, one of the most rewarding things I have been able to do with this work is to sit with Gita when I can and simply look through these photographs with her. Though, her short term memory falters much of the time and her long term memory is fractured as well, when Gita looks at her work, the depth of appreciation she has for these images is clear - and her pride evident. She is intellectually active still, and can be found reading the newspaper nearly every time that I visit her. And she remains a lovely, outspoken, occasionally crass, but decidedly vibrant spirit. It saddens me to think of her bound to a wheelchair and staring down the same hallway every day. The reality seems all too real, I suppose, and this cannot be an uncommon emotion to anyone visiting an older friend or loved one. I live too far away to visit very often but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to pull this work together, in hopes that her passion and talent can be appreciated and enjoyed by a much wider audience.

Thank you, Gita.


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Early Portrait of Gita

Artist Unknown

"From one sweetheart to another, Gita"

An early portrait of Gita. Apparently given as a gift to her first husband, George Zoul.

Inside was tucked a registered personal letter postmarked July 28, 1938, also to Mr. George Zoul. c/o Bachelor's Club in Jackson Heights, Long Island.

"I suppose by now you are completely sterile (May I be the first to offer my congratulations and sincere wishes for your success in matters sexual!)"

She writes that she is saddened their relationship was severed in "so abrupt a fashion." Must try to figure out her timeline with her marriage to George and his service in the Lincoln Brigade.

She also writes that "I will always be your friend, whether you want me or no, and I shall always be more than a little interested to know how your extravagantly emotional nature will expend itself. Think of me without rancor and I will be satisfied."

We need a journalist, perhaps to help with public records.


The Project Begins

copyright Gita Lenz

Last week, I met with my interns for the first time, to begin the project of conserving and organizing the work of photographer Gita Lenz. Below, is a very loose chronology of her life as I understand it so far. There are some large holes but right now we are trying to read through old correspondence and notes and pay stubs, etc. in hopes of pulling together a better understanding of Gita's life.

Anyway, here is the Chronology as provided by her firend, Timothy:

Gita Lenz, Photographer, Writer

Born Gertrude Maslow October 9, 1910 to Louis Maslow (seamstress) and Yetta Youkeles (piano teacher), in New York City. Parents immigrants from Ukraine. One younger brother who later died in car accident in Los Angeles (date unknown).

Married George Zoul, a Czech immigrant, in mid 1930’s. He was a communist and later joined the Lincoln Brigade with whom he went to Spain in late 30’s to fight against Franco. He was shot in combat and was buried in Spain.

Married Richard Lenz in 1940. Marriage lasted 18 months or so.

Moved to 65 Carmine, in the East Village, in 1940. Lived there until October 2001.

Some correspondence with Mel Most (died 1990) a foreign correspndent and PR agent.

Friends with:

Julien Beck, founder of the Living Theatre
Bayard Rustin, a prominent civil rights and worker activist
William Packard, poet and playwright, founder of NY Quarterly
Aaron Siskind, photographer

Part of Brooklyn Museum photography show titled ‘The Third Eye’ in 1952
Part of MOMA ‘The Family of Man’ show
Published in ‘Modern Photography’ monthly periodical in a few issues early 1950’s.

Held odd temp jobs entire working career. I think was an officer with “NY Quarterly” from inception in the early 1970’s Wrote poetry and studied under William Packard in 60’s / 70’s.

Was interested in socialism and anarchism as it applied in the 30’s through 1960’s.

Only known travels were to Mexico in 1960’s (?)


Gita Lenz, Photographer

copyright Gita Lenz

Short story...

A friend of mine who lives in New york, called me a year or so ago and said that he was helping a friend of his into an assisted living situation. He said that she was a photographer and he thought a very good one. His friend's name is Gita Lenz and I had met her about four years ago at an opening for a show I had in New York in 2002. She is beautiful really. I made the trip to New York to take a look at the work and see what my friend had in mind. Gita has boxes of work, boxes of negatives, correspondence, the whole thing. It is a life in images. Well, actually we feel that she might not have been a photographer for much of her life. But the images are likely from the late forties and into the sixties. Since Gita was moving out of her place, we needed a place to store the work. Ultimately, we decided that I would make a good temporary home for them in Virginia.

So, jump to the present and I recently checked in with Gita again up in New York while taking down a recent show. She really is amazingly sharp and funny. I have begun to do some editing with the work and I took a lot of images up to her so that she could see them and talk about them and basically just to visit with her. It was very cool to see how much she enjoyed the photos.

For me, visiting with her, looking at the work, it stirs up all kinds of thoughts. Why is it we do what we do? When we are gone, is anyone really going to care? Gita has an amazing range of work... street stuff, abstracts, experimental images, portraits of artist / dancer types, documentary work. She was a student of Aaron Siskind's, she was in the landmark 'Family of Man' exhibition in 1955. She was also a published poet. And yet, here is her work, in boxes, in some random guy's house that she has only met a couple of times and the work is still trying to get noticed. It kind of tears me up really.

Anyway, I have only just begun trying to figure out what to do with the work but I will try to keep this online diary going because I think it will be an interesting trek. For next spring, I have a couple of interns from the University where I am teaching and hopefully they will help me get further along. Ultimately, I hope to get together some tight portfolios and see them accessioned into notable photo archives or appropriate museums. Then, if we can put together enough of the story, I could imagine a book might also be a possibility...

So, more later on Gita.