Karl Bissinger, Portraitist, Dies at 94

Written on November 25, 2008 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies


(As published in the New York Times)

Karl Bissinger, whose lustrous black and white portraits created a memorable gallery of the leading figures on the postwar American arts scene, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by Catherine Johnson, the editor of "The Luminous Years: Portraits at Mid-Century," a collection of Mr. Bissinger’s work.

As a photographer for magazines like Flair, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Town & Country, Mr. Bissinger created indelible images of the new generation of writers, actors, dancers and free spirits who were reshaping American culture after World War II. He photographed an absurdly youthful Truman Capote on the set of a Jean Cocteau film in Paris, a skinny Marlon Brando leaning languidly in front of a round window in a Manhattan sublet and Paul Bowles sitting cross-legged against the tiled walls of a cafe in Marrakesh.

One of his most recognizable photographs, taken in 1949, shows Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, the Balanchine ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, the artist Buffie Johnson (who died in 2006) and others seated around a table in the garden of the Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan, their faces bright with promise. It is, in effect, a class picture of the young and the talented in the American arts, more than ready for their close-ups.

Mr. Bissinger’s photographs split the difference between high-gloss fashion photography and reportage, reflecting the rawer, more emotive style asserting itself across the arts in the postwar era.

"These were true environmental portraits," Catherine Johnson said. "These people did not have publicists or handlers. They came in their own clothes, without makeup. He often said that environment is a psychological mirror."

To read the full obituary, please click here.


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