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Lida Moser made art on her own terms. The retired artist, who died Monday just a week before her 94th birthday, was a highly acclaimed photographer for more than 60 years, and lived in Rockville, Md., after her retirement. Famous for her portraits, street photography, and magazine work, Moser was dubbed “the grandmother of American photojournalism” by Lenny Campello, co-owner of the Fraser Gallery and Moser’s friend, in Matthew Summers-Sparks‘ 2004 Washington City Paper profile. The then-84-year-old Moser responded to the article in a letter to City Paper‘s editors:
I think it was a very sexist remark. It indicates that instead of being acknowledged for her work accomplishments, a woman must be put into a maternal category. When I spoke with one of your editors on the phone, I told him that he wouldn’t refer to a male photographer, such as Ansel Adams or Arthur Tress, as ‘the grandfather of…’; he said he would. I disagree with him, because I’ve read extensively about photography, and I’ve never found ‘grandfather’ used to describe a male photographer.
The letter continued:
My second complaint is that I don’t like being pigeonholed into photojournalism. I went way past that, and, as mentioned in the body of your piece, I also did portraits, theater publicity, travel stories, photoillustration, architecture, still lifes, special effects, and more. I even wrote a book about special-effects techniques. When I became a photographer, I was determined to use photography as a magic key into as many aspects of life as I possibly could—and that I would not limit myself to one category.
Inspired by the works of Eugene Atget, who photographed Paris in the early 1900s, Moser began her career in 1947 by working under Berenice Abbott in New York, where she became a member of the city’s well-regarded Photo League, a pioneering force in street-style photojournalism. She shot for glossy magazines like Look, Esquire, and Vogue, the latter of which sent her to Quebec to produce a series of photos in rural towns that were published widely, eventually comprising the book Québec à l’été 1950. In an industry dominated by male photographers, Moser had to fight for work, sometimes taking assignments under the table from editors who were discouraged from hiring women.
Perhaps her most famous photograph, “Judy and the Boys,” a fashion shoot that took a turn for the hilarious when the model flipped a bunch of rowdy interlopers the bird, is one of the Library of Congress’ most-requested photos for reproduction. Campello says Moser had a razor-sharp memory when it came to her past work. “You could point to one of her old photographs and she’d know the name of every one of the kids,” he tells Arts Desk.
Moser wrote for the New York Times from 1974 to 1981 and published how-to books on abstract photography and making a living as an artist. Her works are in the permanent collections of the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the national portrait galleries of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. When the Smithsonian bought around 200 of Moser’s photos a few years ago, Campello says she gave all the money to a woman in Canada she met while working on her Quebec project. “She deserves it; I’ll tell you the story some day,” she told him.
Moser’s work was widely celebrated in Canada—-a 1978 exhibition of her work at Montreal’s McCord Museum was one of the institution’s most-visited shows, and next February, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec will present a retrospective of her photos from the Canadian countryside.
“I’ve done it all in photography,” Moser told Summers-Sparks in 2004. “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.”
“She was not pinned into any particular corner, and in the art world, people always want to put a label on things,” says Campello. “That probably hurt her [success] a little bit. But in her true spirit, she didn’t give a fuck.”