At Rockville’s Revitz House, the level of activity seems about right for an independent-living community: On a recent Monday afternoon, residents chatter in the lobby as they prepare to catch the shuttle bus into town. But the inside of Lida Moser’s sixth-floor apartment, where the 83-year-old New York native is taking inventory of the 40-plus years’ worth of photographs, prints, and negatives, practically buzzes.
Moser is getting her life’s work in order, pulling item after item from cardboard boxes and bags that have been stored in her closet, labeled according to subject matter: “Women,” “Men (Includes British and Canadian),” “Quebec + WTC.” Scotch-taped to the closet’s rear wall are notes about pictures from Russia and a shot of two Canadian girls sitting by a fence, as well as a business card from Christie’s, on which an auction-house representative wishes Moser well and suggests that she “come to NY immediately.”
“I’m not retired,” says Moser, somewhat indignantly. “Does it look like I’m retired?”
Many of the prints will be sold to private collectors or museums over the next few years, including the piece from 1961 that is among Moser’s most well-known works. Titled Judy and the Boys (Mimicry) and shot back when Moser was freelancing for Look, Esquire, and Vogue, it shows a young woman decked out in heels, a dress hemmed just below her knee, three complementary necklaces, and trim white gloves. She sports an era-appropriate bouffant and stands before a large wooden garage door, affecting an end-of-the-runway pose.
“This girl wanted to be a model,” Moser recalls. “She was just starting out and asked me to take some pictures for her portfolio. I agreed to, as long as we went down to the Village, where the truck-loading platforms looked like stages.”
Indeed, the shot has an almost theatrical quality: The sidewalk is a scuffed, oil-stained dais, and the garage door provides a tall, symmetrical backdrop. But what makes the photo striking are the neighborhood boys who poke fun at the aspiring model. Gesturing to a rowdy-looking child of about 12 near the center of the picture, Moser says, “I love that boy. We were ready to shoot when he just showed up.”
Replaying their initial conversation, she alternates between the boy’s thick Noo Yawkese and an affected version of her own less-pronounced accent. “‘Hey lady! We wanna be in your picture!’ ‘No. Get lost.’ ‘Take our picture.’ ‘We’re trying to do a job—you’re bothering us.’ ‘Hey lady, we live in Greenwich Village—we know all about art.’”
After more give-and-take with the boy, Moser finally allowed him and his friends into the shot, much to her model’s chagrin: As the boys exuberantly ape her fashion-show demeanor, she slyly, almost imperceptibly, flips them the bird.
The piece typifies Moser’s work: It captures a moment in which people have let their guard down and are acting genuinely, features details of a long-vanished New York, and clearly displays the empathy Moser felt toward her subjects.
Even now, recalling the 12-year-old boy, she says, “He’s so wonderful. He’s so brave. I bet he’s a huge success somewhere today.”
Before Moser stopped shooting professionally, in 1989, she enjoyed a good bit of success of her own, working alongside Berenice Abbott, traveling the world on assignment, and even writing a column about photography for the New York Times. Today, Moser’s prints are included in the collections of both the American and British National Portrait Galleries, as well as of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the National Galleries of Scotland. A portrait of her, painted by New York artist Alice Neel, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I call Lida ‘the Grandmother of American photojournalism,’” says Lenny Campello, co-owner of the Fraser Gallery and Moser’s dealer in the Washington area. “In terms of aesthetics, her work is as good as any urban photographer. She’s in the league of major names, including her mentor, Berenice Abbott….[S]he never made a lot of money, but she was able to do for a living what she loved doing—taking photographs.”
Moser grew up interested in the arts, though she says she “wasn’t particularly good at anything” as a child. After graduating from her Manhattan high school, Moser attended college for a year, then assisted a New York dress designer. During World War II, she worked in the U.S. Army Signal Corps creating graphs for reports. Afterward, she worked as a receptionist in the photo and film department of the Museum of Modern Art and for a brief time was an aspiring filmmaker.
Soon, however, a friend began talking to her about switching to still photography. The idea appealed to Moser, but first she had to learn her way around the new medium. With the assistance of a family friend, she secured a job with Abbott, cataloging the elder woman’s collection of Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris at the beginning of the 20th century.
It turned out to be a fortuitous assignment. “His photos are absolutely marvelous,” Moser says. “He got a job to document Paris—the people, streets, parks. He was obsessed, would wake up early in the morning to get the best light. For six months, I got to study [his photos] all day long. It was incredible.”
Inspired by Atget’s example, Moser started photographing on her own in 1947, documenting the people and places she encountered in her travels through New York. She also became a member of the city’s legendary Photo League, which served as a combination of social club, school, and salon. “You’d go there and meet people and talk about photography and anything else,” says Moser. “One thing the group did was give assignments, like photographing a city street. Then they’d compare results.”
It was, it turns out, a good time to be a photojournalist. “The economy was in ascendance,” recalls Moser. “People started to be curious about other places after the war, so magazines sent photographers to shoot pictures.”
Vogue was a particularly good fit for Moser, who notes that it was a completely different publication than it is today. “It was very dignified, had a remarkable features section,” she says. “For instance, they did a beautiful article about the postwar Italian film directors. Who knows what kind of crap they’re producing today?”
In 1949, the magazine sent her to Britain to shoot portraits of prominent Scottish artists and writers. After the photos were printed, Moser remembers, her editor told her, “‘Every once in a while I have to do something on Canada. I have no idea what goes on up there.’” Soon after, the young photographer was sent to Quebec “to shoot whatever I wanted.” She ended up joining Paul Gouin, a cultural adviser to the Canadian government, on a wide automobile tour of the province in the company of a folklorist and a historian.
“It was amazing,” Moser recalls. “We went into some deep rural areas that had hardly been photographed. While the men spoke with the locals, I hopped around in the background, shooting photos. I felt like these people were laying bare their world to me.”
Moser’s shots of midcentury life in the French-speaking province, ranging from a pair of ragamuffin girls doting over the family cat to a snowy street seen through the emblazoned window of the Restaurant Français, appeared in both American and British Vogue, as well as in the New York Times. When the McCord Museum in Montreal showed the work again, 38 years later, a reviewer described Moser’s photos as “images of rare vitality and almost poignant reality….She gives us a definitive respectful view of a human group living in postwar North America.”
The series, which was published in the book Québec à l’été 1950 (“Quebec in the Summer of 1950”), in 1982, still stands as Moser’s most well-known body of work. Because she primarily worked on assignment, Moser didn’t sell many pieces to private collectors until late in her career—after television had replaced photo-intensive magazines as most Americans’ armchair traveling companion of choice.
“In the ’60s, the exotic magazine work dried up,” she recalls. “We [photographers] couldn’t get [the same assignments]. Some started teaching at colleges, but I thought, What a bunch of phonies. I don’t need that.”
So Moser rode out the last decades of her professional life mostly continuing to work for magazines in New York, photographing the city and making portraits of figures such as Charles Mingus, Tennessee Williams, and Leonard Bernstein. For a few years, she managed the image library for an oil company in New Jersey. She wrote for the Times from 1974 to 1981, and also penned technical books: Career Photography: How to Be a Success as a Professional Photographer, which she was well-suited for, and Grants in Photography: How to Get Them, which, because she had never received or applied for a grant herself, required some intense research.
“I’ve done it all in photography,” Moser says. “Portraits, architecture, Canada, Scotland, dance, strange effects. If I made a mistake in my career, it’s that I didn’t specialize. But I didn’t want people describing me like, ‘There’s Lida Moser. She shoots portraits,’ or ‘She shoots buildings.’ I didn’t want to be limited.”
Leaning back in her chair, smiling a bit, she concludes, “I’ve decided that I’m the Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci of photography.”
Moser left New York in 1989, settling briefly in Northampton, Mass., assuaging a long-standing fear: “Ever since I was 20, I thought I would die at any minute. I wanted to live in the country before it was too late.” She moved into Revitz House two years ago. Along the way, she sold her photographs of Quebec to the province’s official archives.
Her work continues to draw attention: Judy and the Boys has become one of the Library of Congress’ most requested photos, two of Moser’s prints were auctioned at Christie’s earlier this week, and a collection of her photographs are currently on display in Germany. This past holiday season, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. featured a story about Moser’s current creative undertaking: a figure-study course at Montgomery College. Another CBC producer has secured funding for a documentary about her trip to Quebec. And Campello says that Fraser will feature a show of Moser’s work in 2005.
Moser, of course, loves the attention—even if she doesn’t let on. “There’s a time when nothing is too much,” she says. “You’re young, you work 18-hour days because you can and because you love your work. And you work because you want to know how everything will turn out.
“Well, I’m done with all that—and I know how it turns out, mostly. I wound up here. And I took some fantastic photographs.” CP