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Hansel Mieth
Hansel Mieth, 1936,
by Peter Stackpole
You cannot photograph without a point of view - Hansel Mieth

HANSEL MIETH: VAGABOND PHOTOGRAPHER is the compelling tale of a pioneering woman photojournalist who created some of the most indelible images of America mid-20th century, but is in danger of being forgotten today. A German immigrant who arrived in this country in the midst of the Great Depression, she rose to become a celebrated LIFE magazine staff photographer, only the second woman to occupy that position. Armed with convictions, perseverance, and talent, Mieth courageously carved out a career in the male-dominated world of photojournalism at a time when very few women were accepted in the profession.

Hansel and Otto
Hansel and Otto at LIFE photo lab,
1938, by Peter Stackpole

The forces that shaped Mieth into a photographer with a conscience are evident from her childhood as the daughter of working-class German parents who experienced hardship and poverty. As a young woman she met Otto Hagel, with whom her life and work became inextricably linked. Her life-long love affair with Hagel, also a photographer, is vividly portrayed in the film through Mieth’s own words, and through the images Mieth and Hagel took of each other and of their surroundings.

Moving to the United States in the ‘30s during the Great Depression, Hagel and Mieth survived by accepting any work they could find. They toiled alongside migrant workers in the Salinas Valley, experiencing the same hunger, fatigue and despair as their coworkers. After months of grueling conditions, they became determined to document the plight of the laborers and unemployed workers in the Southwest, saving whatever money they could for photographic chemicals. Tragically, Hansel and Otto lost their only child, Maria, age two, while living in a migrant camp near the Imperial Valley. Although Maria was the victim of a drunk driver, Hansel feared that Maria's death was possibly linked to efforts on the part of the farm owner to force them to stop photographing the migrant workers. She refused to take a single photograph for about a year after her loss. After the death of their child, they moved to New York and began their rise to fame as photographers for hire.

Chinatown, 1936, by Hansel Mieth © Center for Creative Photography
Chinatown, 1936, by Hansel Mieth
© Center for Creative Photography

A contemporary and friend of such respected photographers as Imogen Cunningham, Peter Stackpole, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans and Margaret Bourke-White, Hansel Mieth remains one of the great but still undiscovered women photojournalists of this century. During the “golden age of photojournalism” (1930s - 1950s), her work appeared in virtually every pictorial magazine in the world. She documented the casualties of social injustice—from Depression-era hardships to the alarming assault on civil liberties in Japanese American internment camps. Yet through her talents as a photographer, Mieth gave her subjects a nobility—a sense that the lives she captured on film had an intelligence and worth few others had noticed.

Filmmaker Nancy Schiesari was immediately drawn to Mieth’s photographs when she encountered them in a small publication, Photography Forum, in an article written by Grace Schaub. Schaub, who had co-written [with Mamoru Inouye] the text for a book of photos about the Heart Mountain Internment Camp, put Schiesari directly in touch with Mieth. Beginning in 1996 with the barest crew—just herself and cinematographer Therese Sherman—Schiesari was fortunate to establish a personal connection with Mieth, recording more than 20 hours of intimate interviews at her home in Santa Rosa, California. Tragically, between their meetings, Mieth suffered a series of strokes. Her quickly fading health made the process of reflecting backwards all the more poignant and essential. Before she could see the film completed, Mieth died at the age of 88 in 1998.

Schiesari reveals Mieth’s extraordinary life experiences by intercutting taped interviews and voice-over narration with poetic imagery, both through archival flashback (selected for artistic merit as much as for historical context) and through Mieth’s photographs, re-explored with the use of the camera. The result is a richly woven documentary that places Hansel Mieth as a significant contributor to the cultural context of her time.

A modest woman, Mieth’s compassion for the underprivileged and her integrity as an artist far overshadowed her drive for professional recognition. Her significant contributions to America’s heritage are dangerously close to fading into obscurity. It is, therefore, with some sense of urgency, that filmmaker Schiesari has reclaimed Mieth’s work, sharing with new generations the inspiration of this pioneering artist.

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