Ten Minutes with Lisl Steiner
Photojournalist and documentarian
Sally Semonite Green
Lisl Steiner signs off her emails with “photojournalist, documentarian, kuratorin, valkyrie, energie spendende, chronicler in residence at Caramoor 1961-2013/Argentine fine arts academician in USA.” That alone inspires a deeper look into this 87-year-old Pound Ridge resident’s fascinating life as a freelance photojournalist for the likes of Time, Life, and Newsweek. She sat down with Bedford Magazine and proceeded to captivate us (as usual) for more than the alotted 10 minutes, but here are some highlights.
Which of the words above best describes you? We live in a society where titles are important, so when someone calls me something nice, like “goddess,” I may decide to incorporate it in my curriculum. I was told I transmit energy when I talk to people, so I am an “energie spendende,” and I also enjoyed being called a valkyrie. However, I would primarily consider myself a photojournalist.
How would you describe your photojournalistic style? I’m very proud that I have not learned anything in my photography. I have managed not to know anything in 64 years; it’s the truth. I photograph with my guts, and then, after the picture is there, I use a little of the poor mind I have, to analyze it, throw it out, or keep it.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Vienna, and in 1938 at age 11, was exported to Argentina with my parents. I studied art and worked in the film industry, and in 1955, during a revolution, decided to become a photojournalist. General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu took charge, and I somehow inherited the title “Photographer of the President,” which was not true, I was just freelancing. I photographed him fishing in Usuahia, and the American public thought that the General fishing was wonderful, and my first photograph ended up in both Time and Life.
You’ve photographed high-profile personalities—Nixon, Pelé, Eisenhower—as well as everyday people. What is your favorite subject? I have always liked dictators. In the presence of dictators, I always enjoyed to tell them “sit down, get up, go to the left, go to the right.” It was a major pleasure. I followed Fidel Castro everywhere, and dictated to him how he needed to be photographed.
Do you have any other passions? Yes, lately I have two. Although Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he was most fond of elocution. Most people mumble, and I have been battling that. Children need to learn how to speak and how to properly handshake! My second passion is that I am on my way to becoming a torch singer. In the ’20s, Marlene Dietrich sang wonderful songs with double-entendres, which I now sing in my car. Marlene is my backup; she sings softly, and me, just a bit louder.
Any other wisdom to impart? I think that most important is probably to be humble. All the great people I have known have been very humble. Humble is a good word, a good thing, and I am working on being humblier. Is that a word?
After traveling three-fourths of the world, will you remain in Pound Ridge? Yes, I have been a resident here for a very short time, just 40 years. From here, I either go up or down, we don’t know yet my next destination.