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The intuitive lens of Lisl Steiner.

In her entrancing portraits, the Argentine photojournalist reveals the universal child

As a photojournalist, Lisl Steiner roamed the congested cities and remote outback of the Americas for over three decades, often on assignment for major publications like Time, Life, Newsweek, National Geographic, and the New York Times. She was there primarily to cover the big stories--elections, inaugurations, revolutions--and yes always found time to disappear into the back streets or the adjacent countryside to document the lives of children, "the world's most important resources," as she says. Steiner witnessed appalling poverty, ignorance, even treachery and yet, against this tragic back-drop of humankind's mismanagement of its affairs there would appear the forgiving face of a child: innocent, wise, resilient. For this photographer they were symbols of hope, promise, yet another chance to somehow do better.

Steiner's extended photo essay, "Children of the Americas," represents her sustained commitment to future generations of the Western Hemisphere. The project was launched in 1959 while Steiner was in Santiago, Chile, covering a conference of America foreign ministers for the Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro. First she discussed her idea with Uruguay's Dr. Joss Mora (then secretary general of the Organization of American States), who agreed with her contention that the camera might be the best vehicle for focusing on both the promise and plight of children throughout the Americas. He gave Steiner's proposal unqualified support and what is more, she persuaded all twenty-one foreign ministers then in attendance to sign a written endorsement officially launching the undertaking. "It was one of those rare moments when everyone managed to agree on something," Steiner recalls with pride.

As Steiner began to collect her images--a Paraguayan child awash in a sea of hats, schoolgirls confronting a blackboard, shoeshine boys from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro looking for business on Copacabana Beach--she also sought out prominent people noted for their humanitarian concerns in hopes of gaining support for her work--Eleanor Roosevelt, Pablo Neruda, Louis Armstrong, Danny Kaye, Pablo Casals, Venezuelan president Romulo Betancourt, and Robert F. Kennedy among them.

She recalls with relish her encounter with Jorge Juis Borges, a three-day photo session for Time, which allowed Steiner to tell the Argentine writer about her project. "The first day he was having breakfast: dry cereal. I thought he would choke on the stuff. Anyway I asked him, 'Will you give me a short verse about children for my project?' but in disgust he said 'I hate children!'" Undaunted, the next day the persistent Steiner tried again, softening him up by reading in German an epic poem he wanted to hear, The Battle of Hastings, by Heinrich Heine. Borges began to cry, and she too became emotional but still had the presence of mind to reiterate her request for some lines by Borges. He still refused, but she detected a different tone in his voice. It was on the third day that Borges opened the door and confessed with a smile that he had something for her. Into the microphone of her tape recorder he intoned: "No pasa un dia sin que un nino descubra el mundo como lo hizo Adan. Hagamos lo imposible para que sienta que esta en el paraiso" (Not a day passes but that a child discovers the world, even as Adam did. Let us do our utmost to make him feel that he is in paradise). Steiner transcribed the quote in both English and Spanish (it: appears here for the first time), and Borges signed his name below. That same day she coaxed him into his back bedroom, a sparsely furnished cell, and recorded a particularly touching scene of him with his cat.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1927, Steiner spent most of her formative years in Argentina. Her family moved to Buenos Aires when she was eight years old. "My father had a good nose for trouble and got us out just in time." She studied art for nearly ten years at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Escuela Fernando Fader de Arte Decorativo but then drifted into filmmaking during the 1950s. As an assistant director, she participated in some fifty documentary films produced by Argentina's Foreign Ministry. It was the era of Juan Peron. "Our goal was to show Argentina at its best: skiing at Bariloche, wine production in Mendoza, gauchos, estancias. I was the troubleshooter. I was quite handsome (an understatement). If we needed a yacht, I got a yacht. If it was a Rolls Royce, that too! I also worked on several feature-length productions but in 1957, tired of too many bad films--I was aware that I wasn't exactly working with Chaplin--I decided to get out of movies."

It was in that same year that Steiner launched her career as a photojournalist. On a whim, she accepted an assignment to fly in a single-engine Beechcraft to Patagonia to photograph President Pedro Eugenio Aramburu while he was on a trout fishing vacation. The outing produced Steiner's first published shot, for nothing less than Life magazine. Did she have any formal training in still photography? "Hell, no. I never learned anything. After thirty-nine years, I am happy to say I have managed not to know too much about photography. I shoot with my guts! Afterwards, I'm always surprised there's even an image there. I just get in a little trance. If what I see in front of me is exciting, it turns out good. These people who are all technicians don't know what it's all about. You can't learn it in a school. Once you start getting intellectual in these things, you're dead."

Among the many notable adventures of her illustrious career, Steiner recalls with special pleasure her encounters with Fidel Castro. She covered him in Argentina, Cuba, and especially New York City on the occasion of Khrushchev's famous shoe-pounding performance at the United Nations. "Fidel had a special presence. People were always putting him down, saying that he plucked his own chickens, that he spoke too long. I found him very thoughtful, a man who wanted to explain things very thoroughly so people would really understand. Khrushchev went to the Hotel Teresa in Harlem to meet with Castro, so in high heels--can you imagine that?--I stood on a police sawhorse barricade for six hours to get the shot." It was in front of the U.N. building that Steiner spotted the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and in a memorable shot she recorded him working like everyone else.

Later, on assignment with the Keystone Press Agency, Steiner spent three days in Washington, D.C., documenting the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. She camped out overnight in the rotunda of the Capitol and was struck by the need of politicians of all persuasions to have their photograph taken in front of the casket for publication back home in their congressional districts.

Working at the White House in the 1980s, Steiner was impressed by President Jimmy Carter's gentle, down-home manner. He was too close to her for the shot she was after and so quietly he stepped back and patiently waited to accommodate the special angle she had in mind.

Obviously, Steiner is the sort of person who doesn't hear the word "no," an essential trait for survival in the rough-and-tumble world of photojournalism. She is not easily rebuffed and almost always emerges from the fray victorious by employing an impressive range of weapons: feminine guile, arm-twisting, even throwing a sharp elbow if necessary. "I tell dictators what to do," Steiner likes to say. "Stand there, move right, move left, sit down. I get what I need."

There is also a gypsy demeanor about Steiner, and not just in the vagabond sense basic to her profession. She favors exotic clothes, for her more jewelry is never enough, and in a husky tone she peppers accounts of her exploits with earthy expletives and deep abdominal laughter. Always up for yet another exploit, she loves the hunt. "One time in 1959 in Santiago, I was with Raul Roa, Cuba's foreign minister. He wanted to meet Pablo Neruda, with whom I'd stayed one time at his retreat at Isla Negra. So on the spot I said I would take him there to that fantastic house crammed with the poet's collections of bottles, figureheads, stirrups, books. Later when Neruda was Chile's ambassador to France, he came to Columbia University in New York City to give a speech. In the hail there was a statue of Buddha, and Neruda and his wife sat right below. He looked just like another buddha!"

In the early 1980s Steiner took up residence in Pound Ridge, New York, in a hilltop house she christened El Repecho, or Little Hill (like the bosom of a woman, she explains to guests). There she spent twenty-four years with her psychiatrist husband, Dr. Meyer Monchek, until his death in 1992. "He was a great primitive ... an intellectual primitive. His great thing was to become illiterate, and I too want to become illiterate. Suppress the intellect. Let intuition take over!" Today, Steiner prefers to live in a small guest house on the grounds, best described as a live-in assemblage in the tradition of her heroes, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, and Robert Rauschenberg. Amid the splendid clutter and chaos of Steiner's varied interests scattered everywhere--a collage of her press passes, a collection of old cameras, old commercial tins, infernal machines that are half typewriter and half lobster--Steiner maintains surprising focus and discipline.

Alongside her photography, she remains devoted to drag, an interest that began in her early years at art school. In 1980 a selection of her impressionistic renderings was exhibited at the Teatro Colon opera house in Buenos Aires--energetic, spontaneous portraits of symphony orchestra conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and Herbert Von Karajan, all of whom she knew. Steiner also has been closely associated with distinguished Argentine photographer Aldo Sessa, serving as his representative in the United States and a spiritual ally or muse in all of his many projects.

As to her project, "Children of the Americas," Steiner remains committed. She is discussing the publication of her project with several sponsors as well as negotiating a traveling exhibition. "Today, when you see the tragedy of many children dying in places like Rwanda, Bosnia--sometimes I fear my work has become irrelevant. Who is going to pay attention to the photograph I took of just one child dying of hunger? But then I reflect and pray. One kid still has to stand for something! Maybe in the next generation, one will be a great president and lead his people, or another will be a doctor who can solve AIDS. One person stall can make a difference. I hope so, or we are lost."

Photography, like all creative processes, involves an endless series of decisions: The lens opens and embraces, but it also closes and excludes. One can't capture everything; as in life, one makes choices. But, paradoxically, one image can defy or transcend the specific and speak to the universal. Or, in the ease of Steiner's moving corpus of images, her visual statements about children do capture the essence of childhood: expectant, courageous, unfettered.

Steiner likes to recall the words of Antoine de Saint Exupery, who, in the forward to The Little Prince reminds us that "all grownups were once children although few remember it." And, she also favors the words of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral: "Many of our obligations can wait. The child, no. At this very moment he is forming his bones and his blood, and trying his senses. You cannot say to him 'Tomorrow.' His name is 'Today.'"

Caleb Bach teaches art history and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and is a regular contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:photojournalist Lisl Steiner
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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