Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources
Introduction & Biographical Essay
The Early Years in America,
[Portrait of Hansel Mieth], 1931.
Otto Hagel, photographer.
Hansel Mieth's photographs are about fairness. She kept her eyes open and her lens trained on injustices. She believed that "To be a good photographer you must feel what people feel when they're down."1 She forced us to see what we might want to pretend did not exist, which defines the role of many photojournalists.
The United States was Mieth's adopted country, and she wanted it to live up to the ideals it espoused. She became the second female staff photographer at Life magazine. Her friends included famed photographers Robert Capa and Dorothea Lange.
Although when she is remembered today, it is not for her famous friends, but for her documentation of the struggles of the forgotten and the overlooked, and for the prize given in her name, which honors documentary photography. Mieth donated to the Library of Congress twenty images from her and her husband's freelance and magazine assignments dating from 1932 to 1942. Many of the magazines that included her work can also be used at the Library, along with books and databases about her and her photographs. The bulk of her personal papers and photographs are at the Center for Creative Photography and the Time-Life archive.
Johanna Mieth was born on April 9, 1909, in Oppelsbohm, a village near Stuttgart, Germany.2 Her genial father ran a shop and rented rooms in the family home to make ends meet, so she grew up surrounded by boarders and poor travelers.3 In 1920, when Mieth's family relocated to Fellbach, she met Otto Hägele (later Hagel) who eventually became her husband.4 As children, they built a radio and began to learn about the world outside their village. She worked in a sewing factory, and he learned clock making.5
In 1927, when they were both eighteen, they left home to tour Europe, riding bicycles through France, Spain and Italy for six months and then walking through Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Turkey. Probably to disguise her gender, Johanna dressed as a boy and went by "Hansel," the diminutive for Hans (John in English), the pet name her father had long used. She kept the nickname for the rest of her life.6 Mieth and Hagel supported their trip by supplying stories and photographs about their journey to newspapers and journals.7
The Great Depression left her family destitute. Both Hagel and Mieth identified strongly with the working class and its struggles. During Adolf Hitler's ascent in Germany in the 1920s, she witnessed prejudicial activities and treatment. This combination of economic and political hardships forged their outlook. Feeling intellectually stifled by Nazism, they dreamed of life in the United States, which they had learned about in the writings of their hero, Jack London.
In the United States
In 1928, Hagel joined the crew of a freighter, abandoned the ship once it reached the United States, and made his way to San Francisco. Mieth followed legally two years later. Together, they subsisted on income earned as laborers.8 Mieth initially worked as a seamstress, but when she found that other workers received double the pay for the same work, she quit.9 She submitted photos for a photographer job for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), but the images were so powerful that the WPA dismissed them as propaganda and rejected her application.10
Outstretched Hands, 1932 or 1934.
Hansel Mieth, photographer.
Hagel and Mieth settled in San Francisco, one of the nation's photography centers, where they took part in activities of the San Francisco Film and Photo League during the early 1930s. They supported themselves in part by joining the army of migrant agricultural laborers wandering the country. They documented the Hoovervilles -- a nickname given to slum settlements built by squatters during the Depression and named for President Herbert Hoover. They photographed other migrant workers with whom they lived in tents, and they moved from camp to camp to harvest ripening crops for very little pay. They photographed the hard lives of their fellow migrant workers as well as the longshoremen and dockworkers of San Francisco and Oakland and bitter labor strikes.11
In about 1933, Mieth and Hagel lost their only child, two-year-old Maria, to a drunk driver in the migrant labor camp and wondered if the death was connected to the farm owner's efforts to prevent them from photographing their working conditions. There is little information about their only child of whom they rarely spoke.12
Migrant Children Haul Water ..., 1932.
Hansel Mieth, photographer.
Peapicker, Nipomo, California, 1934.
Hansel Mieth, photographer.
In 1934 Mieth obtained a contract with California's West Coast Youth Project to document for America's leading magazine, Time, the living conditions of migrant workers as part of a campaign to show the urgent need for change. The magazine also purchased her independently produced report on life in San Francisco's Chinatown.13 She and Hagel were friends with Dorothea Lange and her husband, economist Paul Taylor, and photographed with Lange at times.14
Photographing for LIFE
In 1937, in spite of her concerns that working for a capitalist magazine was antithetical to her personal beliefs, Mieth accepted executive editor Wilson Hicks's offer to photograph for LIFE Magazine. After years of struggle in the United States, Mieth and Hagel moved to New York and devoted themselves full time to their photojournalism careers. She was the second female staff photographer, after Margaret Bourke-White. While Bourke-White also made photographs of working class people, she seemed to identify with them less than did Mieth.
Mieth often felt she was treated unprofessionally at LIFE. She was assigned demeaning tasks such as photographing men attending "girlie" shows.15 Although she was assured the magazine was looking for photographers with different points of view, Mieth battled to publish her stories of social injustice throughout her tenure.16 LIFE often censored her photos by selecting only the most innocuous or adding captions that altered the meaning of the images, such as those about animal experimentation.17 LIFE also assigned work it did not publish. Mieth's remarkable photographic essay on the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, camp in 1943 did not become known until 1995 when the images were exhibited at Santa Clara College's de Saisset Museum.18
Unemployed Father with Son, at a Worker's Alliance Meeting ..., 1938.
Hansel Mieth, photographer.
Mieth and Hagel moved in social circles of left-wing photographers who were or became prominent including Imogen Cunningham, Peter Stackpole, Horace Bristol, Edward Weston, and Carl Mydans.19 Many years into their relationship, Mieth and Hagel married in 1940 in a double ceremony with photographer Robert Capa and his fiancée Toni Sorrel.20
During World War II, Mieth and Hagel became American citizens. On December 29, 1941, photographer Russell Lee wrote to Farm Security Administration photography project director Roy Stryker:
We went over to Berkeley last Sunday and spent the evening with Dorothea and Paul ... Dorothea mentioned that Hansel Mieth was not too satisfied with her work for LIFE -- that they were dropping the photographic essay idea and that spot news was the thing -- in other words sit in the police office or keep in touch with A.P. for the very latest developments -- and in case that the actual pictures could not be taken then they should be faked in the most realistic manner. Otto Hagel, her husband, has had to deliver his camera to the police and she has had to give up hers too, I believe, although she is a citizen.21
To reduce the tension of living apart and working under political pressure, the couple left New York to return to the West in 1941. They purchased a 550-acre ranch near Santa Rosa, California, on which they designed and built a house as well as a number of other structures useful to their dreams of self-sufficiency as farmers. They lived out their lives there except for a final story for LIFE about the changes in the hometown they had left decades earlier in Germany.
The McCarthy Era and Afterwards
"We Return to Fellbach," published in LIFE in 1950, examined post-war life in Germany. In Germany their early opposition to Hitler raised suspicions that they were spies, and the U.S. government shared this suspicion because their fears of Hitler occurred before the general public knew of the dangers. Their unclassified FBI files show they were under surveillance in this country beginning in 1941.22
When the couple refused to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, they were blacklisted. This essentially finished their photojournalism careers.23 Only one more of their collaborations appeared inLIFE, their 1955 "The Simple Life," picture story about their activities on the farm.24 Edward Steichen included a single photo by Hagel in his Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. The couple documented the lives of the nearby indigenous Pomo Indians from the 1950s until Hagel's death in 1973. Thereafter, Mieth worked alone; she painted, wrote an unpublished autobiography -- The Spring Hills of Jackass Flat, and documented events in the community until her death in 1998.
Pomo Tribal Burial of Rodney Maruffo, 1968.
Hansel Mieth, photographer.
Gloria, Rodney's Pregnant Widow, 1968.
Hansel Mieth, photographer.
The photographs of Hagel and Mieth were largely ignored until 1983 when the exhibition Das andere Amerika -- Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971, in Germany -- the first retrospective of the pair's photographic work. In 1989, the Eye Gallery in San Francisco presented the exhibition A Lifetime of Concerned Photography, and in 1991, Hagel's home town of Fellbach, Germany, displayed Simple Life -- Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971.
During the 1990s, more in the photography world rediscovered the work of Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel. In January 1998, weeks before her death, the Mother Jones International Documentary Fund gave Mieth its Lifetime Achievement Award. "Hansel has left us a historic body of work, but Ms. Mieth was more than a gifted photographer," said Chris Johnson, director of the fund. "Her courage, persistence, and commitment to social justice make her an example for concerned photographers everywhere."25
The Hansel Mieth Prize is given annually by Zeitenspiegel, a cooperative of writers and photographers based near Stuttgart working with German and international newspapers and magazines. The prize honors Mieth's ability to capture volumes of meaning in a single image. This prize for the year's best print text/photo feature on a socially-relevant theme is one of the most prestigious awards in German journalism. A jury of ten selects and the photographs are exhibited with the winner receiving a substantial monetary prize. The 2014 prize went to writer Takis Würger with photos by Armin Smailovic for "Fear," about a fifty-year old world champion boxer whose doctors have warned him that another fight could kill him. But he wants to prove to the world that he's still alive. The story involves completing a living will twenty-four hours before the knockout punch.
The Hansel Mieth Prize 2013 was awarded for "A Life in Kabul" by Jan Christoph Wiechmann with photos by Seamus Murphy. The documentary piece speaks to the narrative of an entire country affected by conflict. In 2012 the prize went to "Guantanamo" by Cornelia Fuchs and Uli Rauuss and the photographers Monika Fischer and Mathias Braschler for following the careers of former inmates.26
1 Hansel Mieth Prize.
2 U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, about Johanna M. Hagel.
3 Csaba Polony, "On the Life and Work of Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth," narrated by Hansel Mieth Hagel, Left Curve (1998-89) 13, 8.
4 Andrei Codrescu and Terence Pitts. Reframing America (Tucson, AZ: Center for Creative Photography, 1995), 30.
5 Csaba Polony, op sit, 10.
6 "Hansel Mieth" in John Loengard, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), 76.
7 "Hansel Mieth," in Kenneth Light, Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 17.
8 Csaba Polony, op sit, 10-11.
9 Csaba Polony, op sit 12; Carla Leshne, "The San Francisco Film and Photo League."
10 "Hansel Mieth," in John Loengard, op sit, 77.
11 Csaba Polony, op sit, 12.
12 Nancy Schiesari, "Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer," Independent Lens, 2003.
13Dolores Flamiano, "Too Human for Life," Visual Communication Quarterly 11 (Summer-Autumn 2004): 7-8.
14 "Hansel Mieth," in John Loengard, op sit, 78.
15 Dolores Flamiano, "A Life of Their Own: Hansel Mieth's Photographic Essays," Media History Monographs 7 (2004): 11.
16 Nancy Schiesari, "Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer," Independent Lens, 2003,
17 Dolores Flamiano, "A Life of Their Own: Hansel Mieth's Photographic Essays," Media History Monographs 7 (2004): 8-17.
18 Hansel Mieth / Otto Hagel Archive 1911-1998, Biographical Note , Arizona Archives Online.
19 Hansel Mieth in John Loengard, op sit, 78; Sally Stein, "On Location," in Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, ed. Stephanie Barron, et al (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, University of California Press, 2000), 185.
20 Richard Whelan, Robert Capa: A Biography (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 165-167.
21Russell Lee to Roy Stryker, Roy Stryker Papers, Dec. 29, 1941: 4-5.
22 Sally Stein, "Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel," in Amy Rule and Nancy Solomon, eds., Original Sources: Art and Archives at the Center for Creative Photography (Tucson, AZ: Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, 2002), 129; Janet Zandy, Unfinished Stories: The Narrative Photography of Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi (Rochester: Rochester Institute of Technology Press, 2013), fn 28, p. 166.
23 Nancy Schiesari, op sit.
24 Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth, "The Simple Life," LIFE, 39 (Nov. 14, 1955): 158-165.
25 Chris Johnson as quoted in Dolores Flamiano, "A Life of Their Own: Hansel Mieth's Photographic Essays," Media History Monographs 7 (2004): 1.
26 Hansel Mieth Prize.
Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2013. Last revised: 2015.