Thursday, August 11, 2011
KARL BISSINGER, photographer and antiwar activist, died at age 94
I had the profound honor of interviewing Karl Bissinger in the spring of 1995. He had recently suffered a series of strokes, but I caught him when his mind was sharp and the stories he told as both a photographer and legendary antiwar activist were brilliant. By the time I had the opening for the photo exhibit I produced at the Westbeth Gallery, Karl had lost his mind. His loving daughter-in-law gently took him through the exhibit. He was a great artist and a gentleman.
When Bissinger died in November 2008 at the age of 94, he received numerous international obituaries that discussed his wonderful career. Interestingly, the big New York Times obituary by William Grimes shoved Karl back in the posthumous closet, not mentioning his 42-year love affair with the artist Dick Hanley.
Bissinger was one of the top American fashion photographers of the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, Bissinger gave up his brilliant career to become a prominent activist against the Vietnam War, helping American soldiers escape to Canada. Bissinger lived in one of Westbeth’s graceful penthouses. His book “The Luminous Years,” which collects his 1940s and ‘50s photographs of actors, writers and celebrities, was published in 2003.
Here is an excerpt from our interview:
I was born outside Cincinnati in 1914. On one side, my family was Irish, basically illiterate. On the other side, they were from Germany. They owned a candy factory. I was raised in this strange family. That is what made me a radical. As I grew up, I became a red.
I came to New York, not only because I wanted to be an artist and to get out of Cincinnati, but I wanted to practice radical politics, which I couldn’t do in Cincinnati.
I was at the Art Students League. I wanted to be a painter, but it was the Depression and no one was going to buy anything. I was bisexual back then and moved in a gay circle. Everybody at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, all the men, were gay. You couldn’t make a living as a photographer unless you shot fashion. I met Dick Avedon and we became friends as kids.
Along the way, Dick Hanley and I found each other. He was an artist. We lived together for 42 years.
The Vietnam War really changed me. I was working with the Living Theatre and they did a lot of anti-draft work. I started doing draft counseling. It wasn’t that photography was not rewarding. I became obsessed with what my government was doing. As a white male, I was outraged that I was part of it, whether I wanted to be or not. I became a pacifist and I still am a pacifist. Mainly, I wanted to help soldiers desert. Our job was to get them into Canada. It was an underground railroad.
(Karl Bissinger portrait of Tennessee Williams)