The Photography of Hansel Mieth


Google Arts & Culture

A look at her evocative, emphatic and emotional images

Hansel Mieth was a photojournalist for LIFE Magazine who made a name for herself with her social commentary photography and depictions of the lives of working class Americans.

From the start, Mieth's life was surrounded by poverty, social injustice and struggle. Born Johanna Mieth in Germany to a strict religious family, her father rented rooms in the family home out to boarders and poor travelers, to make ends meet.

Mieth ran away from home at the age of 15 and began work in a factory, something that would inspire her to astutely capture the experiences of blue-collar Americans on camera later in her life. At the age of 18, Mieth and Otto Hagel, her childhood sweetheart and fellow photographer, left Germany and toured around Europe. To disguise her gender, Mieth dressed as a boy and adopted the name Hansel, the German form of John, a nickname which stuck for the rest of her life.

Hansel Mieth, 1938 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

She moved to America in 1930 to join Hagel, who had left 2 years earlier, only to find herself in the middle of the Great Depression and the suffering it brought with it. Mieth and Hagel began work as migrant farm laborers, but fate took a turn when they acquired a second-hand Leica camera and they soon began photographing the brutal conditions around them. The series, encapsulating the bitter labor strikes and the working homeless, was eventually published in LIFE Magazine in 1934, entitled "The Great Hunger".

War worker holding red hot metal piece w. tongs at shipyard, by Hansel Mieth, 1942 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Workers exiting factor at end of shift at shipyard, by Hansel Mieth, 1942 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Workers watching as steel beam is raised high above during subassembling of ship at shipyard, by Hansel Mieth, 1942 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

As Mieth began to build her reputation as a photographer, she was offered a position on the staff of LIFE Magazine in 1937. She produced many important photo essays on topics such as single motherhood, yellow fever, Salvador Dali's infamous surrealist party, and animal experimentation. Her image of a rhesus monkey perching on a coral reef in water became one of the magazine's most famous images.

A rhesus monkey sitting in water up to his chest, by Hansel Mieth, 1939 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Dali's Bad Dream Party, by Hansel Mieth (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Yellow Fever Control, by Hansel Mieth, 1940 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Unfortunately, the onset of World War Two brought difficulties for the couple. As Otto was still a German citizen, he was under threat of internment so together they fled to a remote ranch in northern California. The pace of life was an improvement for Mieth, who had disliked the frantic pace of New York, where the couple had been living.

During the war, Mieth entered the Heart Mountain Japanese-American internment camp on assignment for LIFE. This was a relocation camp where Japanese Americans were sent after being evicted from their homes by an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Nisei Japanese-Americans participating in flag saluting ceremony at relocation center in forced internment during WWII in fear of "fifth-column" activity aiding Japanese enemy, by Hansel Mieth, 1942 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Crowded living quarters of Japanese American family interned in a relocation camp, by Hansel Mieth, 1943 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

The sights Mieth witnessed within the walls of the internment camp were perhaps a reminder of her and Otto's near-miss of a similar existence. LIFE Magazine never published the photos and they did not become known until 1995, when they were exhibited at Santa Clara College's de Saisset Museum. This was a common occurrence for Mieth's photographs, as they were often deemed too graphic.

Japanese American artist & camp internee Jack Jamasaki drawing a wintry street scene of the Heart Mountain relocation camp, by Hansel Mieth, 1942 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

People working in ceramic workshop at relocation center for Japanese-Americans, by Hansel Mieth, 1943 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Men loading coal in below-zero weather, by Hansel Mieth, 1943 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

After the war, Otto and Mieth returned to Germany to visit their hometown of Fellbach, 20 years after they first left. Although the Nazis came into power long after the couple had moved to the United States, they expressed fear at returning: "All during the Hitler years we were ashamed of Germany, of every new act of terror. It was if our own father, mother, brother, sister had turned into torturers and assassins. But how can you disown people from who you stem?"

The resulting essay, "We Return to Fellbach" published in LIFE in 1950, documented the experiences, psychological effects and physical damage of their families after the war, as well as interviews with their neighbors about how they felt after what their country had been through. This was to be their final story.

Portrait of Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

In the early 1950s, Mieth and Otto were asked to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a committee created to investigate the allegedly disloyal, subversive activities and suspected communists. The US government distrusted the couple, as they had expressed anti-Hitler views very early on, leading to the theory that they could be spies. At the hearing the couple would also have been required to declare which of their friends were part of the labor movement. They refused to attend.

As a result, Mieth lost her job at LIFE, the couple were unofficially blacklisted and they were shunned by their former friends. The couple retired to their ranch where they spent the rest of their lives raising livestock.

Mieth's legacy lives on in the strong oeuvre of photographs she left behind, which were invariably characterized by a warmth and depth of understanding for her subjects. The Hansel Mieth prize was established to be awarded every year to a photojournalist who has defied pressures or threats from prominent lobbying groups, to honor Mieth's commitment to social justice.

You can explore more of her photography, here.

You Might Also Like:

- The Pioneering Photography of Margaret Bourke-White
- 13 Unforgettable Photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt
- Dorothea Lange's Moving Photographs of The Depression Era

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