Evelyn Hofer, born in Marburg, Germany in 1922 and passed away in Mexico City in 2009, produced an influential body of work during her lifetime. Her photography bridged the gap between the tradition of August Sander and the upcoming color work of William Eggleston, leading to her unique position as "the most famous unknown photographer in America," a term coined by New York Times art critic and passionate advocate of her work, Hilton Kramer.
Hofer's unique perspective and style have been influential to a number of renowned photographers such as Thomas Struth, Joel Sternfeld, Adam Bartos, Rineke Dijkstra, Judith Joy Ross, and Alex Soth. Her work has been recognized with retrospectives at renowned locations such as the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne (1994), the Aarggauer Kunsthaus in Switzerland (2004), and the Fotomuseum The Hague (2006). Most recently, her work was exhibited at Munich's Villa Stuck as part of the Goetz Collection in the exhibition "Street Life and Home Stories," alongside other esteemed photographers such as William Eggleston, August Sander, Diane Arbus, Thomas Struth, and Nan Goldin.
Escaping Nazi Germany at the age of eleven, Hofer and her family sought refuge in Switzerland. There, she nurtured her desire to be a photographer, methodically setting about to make this dream a reality. She apprenticed at the Studio Bettina, a portrait studio, and took private lessons with Hans Finsler, a pioneer of the "New Objectivity" movement. Hofer's education spanned from the practical aspects of photography to art theory, not only covering composition and aesthetics, but also the chemistry of print production. From the early 1960s, she became a pioneer among fine art photographers, regularly utilizing color film and the complex dye transfer printing process. Throughout her career, she adeptly switched between color and black and white mediums, choosing what best suited the image at hand.
In the mid-1950s, Hofer's career took a significant turn when writer Mary McCarthy asked her to photograph for "The Stones of Florence," a book exploring the history and culture of the city. This marked the start of a forty-year-long collaboration with various authors including V.S. Pritchett and Jan (James) Morris, creating books on Spain, Dublin, New York City, London, Paris, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C. In these books, she masterfully mixed portraits with land or cityscapes.
Working with a 4 x 5-inch viewfinder camera, Hofer favored meticulously composed scenes over spontaneous snapshots, often creating images with a timeless, still aura. Contrary to her contemporaries like Eggleston and William Klein, Hofer's approach involved patience and a keen eye to slow down the world, deeply analyze its conditions, and capture her envisioned image, always in search of an "inside value, some interior respect" in her subjects.
Hofer aimed to transcend documentary photography, crafting subjective interpretations of the world that embodied both the spirit of the time and timeless messages. Her street photographs reflect her interest in societal connections and provide a perceptive look at societal conditions. From tradespeople to social groups, her subjects represent more than intimate portraits – they encapsulate the potentials and constraints of the human condition.
Late in her life, when asked about being labeled as "the most famous unknown photographer in America," she expressed satisfaction, recognizing that the true value lay in the work itself rather than personal fame.