I first met Gita Lenz in 2002 at a reception for an exhibition of my photography in New York City. Gita was then 92, and getting around the city in a wheelchair. She seemed excited to be out on the town and looking at photographs. She told me that she had been a photographer. Most conversations at gallery receptions are light and complimentary, and drift away by the end of a wine-soaked evening. But my conversation with Gita made a lasting impression.
Later I learned that Gita had lived in the same apartment in Greenwich Village, at the corner of Carmine Street and 7th Avenue, since 1940. When living alone in a fifth floor walkup became impractical, our mutual friend Timothy Bartling— a chef in New York City fifty years her junior — helped her to move into an assisted-living facility and called to ask my advice about what do with her artwork and her photography equipment.
In the spring of 2006, with the help of friends and interns from Virginia Commonwealth University, I began organizing and preserving her work. As I lived with her archive, I gained an increasing appreciation for the quality and depth of Gita’s photography. Along with numerous boxes of prints and negatives, there were folders of correspondence, books of photography, rolls of undeveloped film, tear sheets, published articles and folders of poetry — the artifacts of a rich and varied career.
Early on she described herself as a Sunday photographer. But to judge from the quality of the prints she was making by the late ’40s, her development was rapid, and by the ’50s Gita was working professionally. In 1951 her work was included in the exhibition, Abstraction in Photography, curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. The first major exhibition of Gita’s work was in a three-person show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1952. Soon after, in 1955, Edward Steichen included her work in MoMA’s landmark exhibition, The Family of Man.
The photographer Aaron Siskind was evidently a close friend as well as an influence. Like Siskind, who started as a social documentarian and member of the Photo League in New York, Gita spent much of her time making images of the people and the city around her. The images are tender, suggesting a sense of empathy and respect for her subjects; and yet the compositions are dynamic. Also like Siskind, Gita explored abstraction, making complex and beautiful images of mundane and often dilapidated subjects. (These images coincide with the rise of Abstract Expressionism.) In a relatively short period, Gita created a body of work that stands up to comparison with many of the better-known photographers of her time.
It is unfortunate that her career was interrupted by circumstance — by the early ’60s her precarious finances required her to seek a steadier income, working as a copywriter and taking various research and proofreading jobs.
Gita died peacefully, in February 2011, in a nursing home in New York City. Had it not been for the serendipity of Gita’s friendship with Timothy, it’s likely that her work and personal history would have been on a direct course from landlord to landfill.