MICHAEL E. HOFFMAN 1942—2001
All too often, we are obliged to report the loss of a treasured member of the Aperture community. Never has this obligation brought us more sadness, nor a more lingering sense of disbelief than with the death on November 23, 2001 of our Executive Director, Michael E. Hoffman, at age fifty-nine. He leaves behind his wife, Melissa Harris, who is also our senior editor; his children Matthew and Sarah; his granddaughter Isabel; his sister Jill Shore; and a legacy of accomplishments unparalleled in the history of photography.
Michael was hard at work on events surrounding this year’s golden anniversary of Aperture when he became ill. News of his death came to us even as we were going to the printers with this issue, which will reach subscribers almost fifty years to the day from Minor White’s first mailing of Aperture, in May 1952. That first issue was sent to a small, hopeful band of supporters united by a belief in an “ideal in photography.” Michael dedicated his entire adult working life to this ideal, and to the evergrowing community that sustains it.
Aperture’s last two issues of 2002 will be devoted to the magazine’s anniversary: to the images and remembered voices of the many photographers and writers who have graced these pages. These issues will also provide an opportunity to look back over the irrepressible, tumultuous, ever visionary career of the man who kept it going through the worst of times and the greatest of times. Most important, we promise to fulfill Michael’s oft-repeated determination that Aperture’s golden anniversary should be a celebration of the past as prelude to the future.
For now, we offer our readers the eloquent, affectionate remembrance of Michael by his valued friend and collaborator of many years, Mark Haworth-Booth, Curator of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
R. H. Cravens
Michael E. Hoffman was a brave, bold, and occasionally bloody-minded photography publisher. He directed Aperture, the magazine and book imprint based in New York. He was also curator of photography for many years
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the friend, champion and later executor of the great American photographer Paul Strand.
Hoffman moved mountains to create marvelous publications—over 450 books and exhibition catalogs, plus more than 100 issues of the magazine. He charmed to raise money. He cajoled and inspired authors, photographers, designers, editors, printers, and co-publishers. He was driven and visionary. He delighted and infuriated the readers of his publications and the visitors to his elegant and original exhibitions. He changed the cultural landscape and many lives for the better.
Hoffman was educated at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, New York, where he studied English and religion. He liked to reminisce sometimes about selling beads to the Indians on summer vacations in his youth, but he found his mission when he began to study with Minor White, Professor of Photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in 1962. He enormously admired—and in turn emulated—White’s spiritual gifts, intellectual originality, and visual subtlety. They worked closely together until the photographer’s death in 1976.
Minor White had founded Aperture with Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and others in 1952. The magazine existed, they wrote, “to communicate with serious photographers and creative people everywhere.” Under Hoffman’s leadership, the magazine, which had actually ceased publication in 1964 with $25,000 in debts, was not only revived, but transformed into the world’s most visually stunning and editorially creative photographic magazine.
The books began in the year Hoffman became Aperture’s Executive Director, 1965, with Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition. This was a best-selling anthology of Weston’s classic photographs, with vivid quotations from his daybooks. Even more important was the monograph Diane Arbus, published in association with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1972. Arbus had committed suicide the previous year.
John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art’s director of photography at the time, recalls that, four months before the show was
due to open in December 1972, there seemed no possibility of getting a book published. The work had no takers among the publishers on Madison Avenue, nor in Europe. Szarkowski reflected gloomily that, if a book could not be published for a memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, would a book of Arbus’s startlingly original photographs ever see the light of day? He happened to mention the problem to Hoffman, showed him the photographs, and saw the young publisher set to work, producing in time for the show one of the greatest—and most influential— of all photographic books. Looking back on this saga, Szarkowski remarked:
“No one was a villain—but Michael was a hero.”
I got to know Michael Hoffman in 1975 and worked with him very cordially on many projects over twentyfive years. Impatient with the limited ambition of English photography publishing, as I saw it at the time, I flew on impulse to New York in 1982 to talk to Hoffman about a project.
I was thrilled by the “telegrams and anger” atmosphere of the Aperture offices, where Hoffman laid out pictures alongside the
production-whiz Steve Baron, the calm and collected designer Wendy Byrne, and the editorial powerhouse Carole Kismaric. Hoffman worked with many gifted colleagues—but came with a health warning. He was difficult, people sighed. No doubt it was true, but if some found him bruising, others discovered the kind of publisher you dream about, and a valiant friend.
He responded to my pitch and published The Golden Age of British Photography, 1839-1900 in 1984. The production, in tritone lithography, was supervised by Richard Benson and did justice to Victorian photographs for the first time. The exhibition of the book was shown, installed by Hoffman with impeccable taste, at the Philadephia Museum of Art, where it began its U.S. tour. He came to the rescue many times, for many of us—most recently for me with the show “Breathless! Photography and Time” in the Canon Photography Gallery at the V&A in 2000.
Michael Hoffman produced books ranging from the pioneering French Primitive Photography in 1969 to the monumental two-volume Strand retrospective in 1972
(Paul Strand: 4 Retrospective 1915-1968), to affordable collections of the greats, to the radical landscapes and luminous writings of Robert Adams, to edgy books like Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1989), Sally Mann’s Immediate Family (1992), Nick Waplington’s Living Room (1991), and classics by Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiäo Salgado—the list is long and pretty much global.
Hoffman said that he was becoming a curmudgeon, but he remained open and energetic, in 1998 renewed and fulfilled by his marriage to Melissa Harris. Stockily built, always loaded down by books in dummy or proof on his trips to London, Frankfurt, and Paris, he was a witty and engaging companion. I liked and admired him from the beginning but much, much more by the end— which has come too suddenly and too brutally soon.
This tribute is reproduced by permission from the Independent of London, where it was originally published on December 5, 2001.