Hansel Mieth

(1909 - 1998) German


Hansel Mieth left her native Germany with her future husband, Otto Hagel, at the age of fifteen. She traveled through Eastern Europe, then arrived in the United States in 1930, in the midst the Depression. She and Hagel found migrant agricultural work and photographed their experiences in a series eventually published as "The Great Hunger" in LIFE in 1934. In the mid-1930s, besides working as a seamstress for the Works Progress Administration in San Francisco, Mieth photographed several of the city's ethnic neighborhoods, as well as waterfront and freightyard workers, for the West Coast Youth project. The appearance of her photographs in LIFE and Time led to her employment in 1937 as a staff photographer for LIFE's New York office. Although she produced many important photo essays, including those on single motherhood, yellow fever, and animal experimentation, among other topics, she disliked the harried pace of photojournalism in New York. She and Hagel moved to a sheep ranch in California in 1941, and Mieth continued to publish photographs in LIFE. After the war, the couple returned to Germany to document the psychological and physical devastation there; the essay "We Return to Fellbach," was published in LIFE in 1950. During the McCarthy era, Mieth and Hagel relied on raising livestock to survive. Toward the end of her life, Mieth's photographs were the subject of a solo exhibition at ICP in 1994 and were included in several traveling exhibitions.
Mieth's photographs are penetrating documents that evoke a striking range of emotional depth. The photographs she made on assignment for LIFE were often edited out of the magazine for being too graphic, or were published out of the context of their original intention. Despite such misrepresentation, however, her images are among the strongest and most successful works of photojournalism produced in the United States during the years surrounding World War II.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 222.
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