Karl Bissinger (1914-2008) was an American photographer, restaurateur, and peace activist whose fashion, portrait, and travel assignments for several post-World War II magazines captured the style and avant-garde spirit of that period.
In the late 1940s, Bissinger was closely associated with New York's "New Bohemians" of fashion, design, theater, film, and literature through his photographic work as well as through his partnership in the famed Café Nicholson on East 58th Street where the glitterati gathered. Bissinger was a longtime resident of Westbeth Artists' Housing, a nonprofit providing affordable living and creative work space located in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Bissinger was also a committed pacifist during World War II. In the 1950s through the 1960s, he became involved with a number of peace organizations, most notably the War Resisters League, advocating nuclear disarmament and later working full-time as a draft counselor.
Karl Bissinger was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1914, a descendant of Karl Frederick Bissinger, who immigrated to America in 1845 and established Bissinger's, the famed candy shop and chocolatier. In high school, Bissinger studied painting at the Cincinnati Art Museum. He then moved to New York City to continue his artistic studies, joining the Art Students League in the late 1930s.
While attempting to establish a career as a painter, Bissinger worked as a set decorator and prop stylist at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. He eventually took a job as a stylist for Condé Nast, where he worked with many of the leading fashion photographers of the time, including John Rawlings, George Hoyningen-Huene, Cecil Beaton, Louise Dahl Wolfe, and Irving Penn. During a summer gathering at Cherry Grove on Fire Island, Richard Avedon encouraged Bissinger's interest in photography, lending him a camera and posing for him, as did his wife, Doe Avedon. Another of Bissinger's friends who posed for him was James Baldwin, who was just beginning his writing career. Impressed by Bissinger's work, Avedon sent him to Lillian Bassman, the noted fashion photographer and art director of Junior Bazaar, who gave Bissinger his first professional assignment.
In 1948, Bissinger partnered with Johnny Nicholson, along with chef and later noted chronicler of Southern foods Edna Lewis, to open Café Nicholson on the Upper East Side. Café Nicholson became a favorite gathering place for the post-war Bohemians—artists, actors, writers, and photographers—as well as a frequent setting for Bissinger's portrait photography. Also in the late 1940s, Bissinger met Richard Hanley, a fashion illustrator and fabric designer, who became his life companion until Hanley's death in 1990 at age sixty-four.
During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Bissinger worked on assignments for Junior Bazaar, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Theatre Arts, and Town & Country. He was appointed staff photographer at Flair, the short-lived, visually-innovative magazine published and edited by Fleur Cowles between 1950 and 1951. Bissinger not only supplied photographic portraits to these magazines, but also traveled extensively on assignment and contributed photographic essays on the exotic locales he visited, including Morocco, Sicily, Haiti, and Spain.
Bissinger began to participate in political and anti-nuclear demonstrations in the late 1950s, and in 1960, after his first arrest, he met and became friends with Judith Molina and Julian Beck, founders of the Living Theatre. In the early 1960s, he spent time traveling in Europe with the Living Theatre as its official photographer. Bissinger also served as staff photographer for Susan Sherman's radical magazine, Ikon, during its brief run (1967-1968).
As the Vietnam War escalated in the 1960s, Bissinger worked with antiwar and draft counseling groups in The Living Theatre and the Greenwich Village Peace Center. He received training from the American Friends Service Committee as a draft counselor and then joined the staff of the War Resisters League (WRL), where he worked and, after his official retirement, volunteered for the rest of his life. With the exception of his work for The Living Theatre and some film productions, Bissinger's photography shifted entirely from fashion, travel, and portraiture to documentary photography of demonstrations and activists and projects such as the WRL peace calendars.
Late in his life, Bissinger experienced a resurgence of interest in his early photographic work. In 2001, a series of photographs of Morocco taken by Bissinger in 1949 was featured in Elias Canetti's The Voices of Marrakesh, published by San Francisco-based Arion Press. The Luminous Years, a collection of Bissinger's photographic portraits from the late 1940s and 1950s, appeared in 2003. Bissinger died on November 19, 2008, at the age of 94.
Michael Maronna, "Work As Though You Had Hope: An Interview with Karl Bissinger," in The War Resisters League 2005 Annual Dinner and Presentation of the 40th Peace Award, June 10, 2005. p. 10-15.
Shawn O'Sullivan, "Karl Bissinger," B&W, June 2004: 94-99.
Wendy Shwartz, "Karl Bissinger: A Retrospective," War Resisters League. http://www.warresisters.org/node/636 (accessed May 18, 2010).
William Grimes, "Karl Bissinger, Portraitist, Dies at 94," New York Times, November 25, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/25/arts/design/25bissinger.html?ref=arts (accessed August 26, 2010).
The papers of American photojournalist, restaurateur, and peace activist Karl Bissinger (1914-2008) encompass nearly seventy years of professional activity. This collection not only provides abundant documentation of Bissinger's careers in photography and social activism, but also offers rich visual resources for the history of photography in post-World War II America.
The collection comprises 18 linear feet and oversize material that includes negatives, color transparencies, contact sheets, photographs, slides, correspondence, diaries, journals, notes, sketches, paintings, manuscripts, published and unpublished books, magazines, tear sheets, government records, pamphlets, posters, and other ephemera from 1935 to 2008. The collection is arranged into five series: I. Personal papers; II. War Resisters League and peace activities; III. Publications; IV. Photographic work; and V. Book projects.
Series I. Personal papers, contains personal notebooks, journals, correspondence, artwork, media, and personal effects created and/or collected by Karl Bissinger. The series is arranged into three subseries. Subseries I.A. consists of notebooks kept by Karl Bissinger and his life partner, Richard Hanley. The notebooks contain a wide range of material such as itineraries for trips; financial notes and bills; recipes, contact information; lists of clothing; and drawings for home decorations or room arrangements. Particularly significant is Bissinger's notebook which served as a journal for his 1968 trip to Cuba. In it, he mentioned travel companions Jerome Rothenberg, George Cohen, George Hitchcock, Susan Sontag, and Bruce Kendrick, and recorded contact information for people he met. Bissinger also described the communities and farms the group toured, recorded his thoughts on socialism, and mentioned meeting Fidel Castro.
Subseries I.B. includes letters from Bissinger's son, David Fechheimer; from literary figures whom Bissinger photographed such as Paul Bowles and Diane di Prima; and from friends. Correspondence pertaining to Bissinger's activism with the War Resisters League and his efforts toward disarmament is also included.
Subseries I.C. consists of personal documents such as passports, family information, and personal effects kept by Bissinger; artwork; and media.
Series II. War Resisters League and peace activities, documents Bissinger's work on behalf of world peace, nuclear disarmament, and related social concerns. Subseries II.A. contains correspondence, publications, and publicity related to the War Resisters League (WRL), as well as the WRL's series of Peace Calendars, some of which Bissinger provided photographs. Subseries II.B. consists of correspondence and documents related to files the FBI maintained on Bissinger, obtained the Freedom of Information Act inquiries. Subseries II.C. includes publications from other peace organizations, such as the New York Workshop in Nonviolence. Subseries II.D. documents the friendship and collaborative efforts of Bissinger and Grace Paley as fellow activists in the anti-war and peace movements in New York City.
Series III. comprises publications that contain Bissinger's photographs; publications relating to Bissinger's interest in theater; and publications relating to Bissinger and his friends and associates. Subseries III.A. consists of publications that contain Bissinger photographs, including two rare issues of Junior Bazaar, several issues of Flair, and the complete first run of Ikon, edited by Susan Sherman. It also includes newspaper articles, magazine articles, tear sheets, galley proofs, and photocopies from a variety of publications that used Bissinger photographs, such as the book jacket photograph from A Little Original Sin, Millicent Dillon's biography of Jane Bowles.
Subseries III.B. comprises publications by, about, or related to Bissinger. Among these are several published interviews of Bissinger, including one conducted by George Plimpton about Bissinger's friendship with Truman Capote, and Bissinger's article about his recently-deceased friend, Saul Gottlieb, that appeared in The Village Voice.
Subseries III.C. reflects Bissinger's lifelong interest in theater, particularly experimental theater. He kept many playbills and other theater programs, but was especially interested in The Living Theatre, Open Theatre, and Bread and Puppet Theatre.
Subseries III.D. includes a variety of publications and articles, including articles by or about Bissinger's friends, such as Edna Lewis, Tennessee Williams, Helen Morgan, Ken Nordine, Paul Bowles, and Reverend Al Carmines.
Series IV. Photographic work, comprises the major portion of the Karl Bissinger papers. Bissinger's professional photography career was split into two distinct phases. His early career was spent working on assignment for Junior Bazaar, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Theater Arts, and Town & Country, and serving as staff photographer at Flair for its entire run (1950-1951). In the 1960s, his focus shifted to photographing experimental theater and political demonstrations and marches and serving as staff photographer for the brief run of Ikon magazine (1967-1968).
Subseries IV.A. Portraits, is arranged alphabetically by individual, and comprises photographic portraits that appeared in a variety of publications. Included among the hundreds of individuals who were photographed by Bissinger were actresses and actors; directors and producers; writers and playwrights; poets; artists; dancers and choreographers; singers and entertainers; musicians and composers; designers; and avant-garde figures difficult to categorize, such as model and Beat muse Sheri Martinelli and Andy Warhol performer Allen Midgette.
Subseries IV.B. comprises Bissinger's photography assignments, which included fashion shoots, travel essays, and advertising work for several magazines.
Subseries IV.C. Performance, features Bissinger's theater, dance, and film photographs. Bissinger was also cinematographer of the 1964 Jonas Mekas filmThe Double Barrelled Detective Story, and his photographic record of the entire seven-week shoot is included in this subseries.
Subseries IV.D. includes photographs Bissinger took at demonstrations, marches, conferences, rallies, and at the War Resisters League offices. Included in this subseries are photographs of Bissinger’s trip to Cuba in 1968-1969 with Susan Sherman, Susan Sontag, Jerome Rothenberg, and others, during which he photographed Fidel Castro giving a speech. The diary Bissinger kept during this trip can be found in Series I.A.
Subseries IV.E. represents Bissinger's participation in experimental therapeutic photography instruction at the Manhattan School for Seriously Disturbed Children, during which he photographed all aspects of the students' activities at the school. He also photographed children at other Manhattan schools for The Urban League and other organizations in New York.
Subseries IV.F. includes Bissinger's personal photographs, ranging from pictures of family and friends to numerous photographs of trips, including summer rentals on Long Island and in New England, sailing trips along the Eastern seaboard, and trips abroad to Brazil, Italy, Ireland, France, and England. Included in this subseries are numerous slides from Bissinger's travels.
Subseries IV.G. contains a variety of photographs arranged by general category; it is unclear whether Bissinger photographed these for professional or personal use. Included among these photographs are those taken by Bissinger during his 1966 visit to Millbrook Estate during Timothy Leary's occupation of the house, located in upstate New York.
Series V. Book projects, comprises realized and proposed projects featuring Bissinger’s photographs and includes the various materials related to each title. Subseries V.A. The Voices of Marrakesh (Arion Press, 2001) project, includes correspondence with Arion Press, offprints, photocopies, and copies of the prospectus. Included in this subseries are negatives and contact sheets from Bissinger's 1949 trip to Morocco. Subseries V.B. The Luminous Years (H. Abrams, 2003), includes contracts, correspondence, papers, proposals, mock-ups, numerous reviews of the book, and research materials compiled by Bissinger's then-photography representative and editor, Catherine Johnson. A significant portion of the book project comprises files for each individual included in the book, and most files contain research conducted by Johnson. This portion of the subseries reflects Johnson's original organization. Subseries V.C. Haiti project, comprises a single file containing correspondence, photocopies of images, and some negatives for a proposed book of Bissinger's photographs of Haiti. Subseries V.D. includes material for Susanna Cuyler's apparently unpublished work on Jeanne Owens, for which Bissinger wrote a paragraph recalling their friendship. Subseries V.E. includes materials gathered by Catherine Johnson for potential projects featuring Bissinger's work.