Mieth, Hansel, 1909-1998

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1909
Death 1998

Biographical notes:

Otto Hagel and Johanna Mieth were both born near Stuttgart, Germany, in 1909. They became friends in their youth and traveled together over much of Europe. It was during these travels that Otto gave Johanna the nickname Hansel, which she used for the rest of her life. Otto left Germany in 1928 and emigrated to the United States. Hansel followed two years later, reuniting in San Francisco, California. In the midst of the Great Depression, work was difficult to find and both of them took whatever jobs they could get. Otto initially found work as a window washer and managed to photograph himself on a scaffold outside an office building. This photograph won a cash prize in a contest organized by the Mid-Week Pictorial in 1930. For a time the two were at Yosemite, helping to build the Wawona tunnel. Later they took jobs as migrant agricultural workers, and it was during this period that they began to develop the humanistic sensitivity that characterizes their later work. The photographs taken during this period (later called by the photographers "The Great Hunger") documented the Hoovervilles around Sacramento, the squalid living conditions in the Mission District of San Francisco, the Salinas Lettuce Strike, and the hard lives of their fellow migrant workers as well as the longshoremen and dockworkers of San Francisco and Oakland. The book Men and Ships used photographs by Otto Hagel to document the general strike of 1936. In 1937, Hansel received a telegram from Wilson Hicks, editor of the recently created LIFE magazine, offering her a staff position as photographer. After some deliberation, she accepted this post, but Otto, who had also been approached, made an arrangement to act as a free-lance photographer. Moving first to Denver and then to New York, Hansel and Otto began their photographic journalism careers. Hundreds of assignments on a great variety of topics marked the years from 1937 to 1941. Otto and Hansel were married in 1940. Otto became a naturalized citizen at this time as well, assisted by none other than the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, who appreciated Otto's talents as a photographer and wanted to use them in his campaign for re-election. In 1941, the couple returned to the West and 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 the self-sufficiency of a farmer's life. Perhaps because of their German backgrounds, the number of photographic assignments given them during the war shrank. In fact, the remarkable photographic essay on the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry at the remote Heart Mountain, Wyoming, camp was never published. After the war, however, the assignments picked up, and the first of Otto and Hansel's photographic essays, "We Return to Fellbach," examining post-war life in Germany, was published in 1950. Their refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities caused them to depend more on their ranching and farming to support themselves, and they enthusiastically took up chicken farming. An outbreak of disease dashed these hopes, however, and the two returned to photography, publishing a photo essay about themselves and their shattered farm dreams in a 1955 story in LIFE called "The Simple Life." Also in 1955, a photograph of a small boy walking to school through the bombed out ruins of post-war Germany was selected by Edward Steichen to be included in his famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Three years later, Otto took a series of photographs of the famous potter Marguerite Wildenhain that were featured in a book and film about her. In the 1960s, Hansel turned her creative energies away from photography and more toward painting and writing. In 1963 the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union brought out Men and Machines, an important photographic essay documenting the introduction of machinery into the longshoreman's world of manual labor. Otto took all of the photographs for this publication, designed the book, and made the printing mechanical layouts. Toward the end of the decade, Hansel returned to photography and worked with Otto photographing low income children participating in the Head Start program. These photographs were exhibited at the Sonoma County Free Public Library under the title "An Unfinished Story." In the early 1970s Otto and Hansel took a series of photographs documenting the lives of the Pomo Indians, a Native American tribe indigenous to Sonoma County, California. In January, 1973, Otto suffered a stroke and died. At the time of Otto's death, the Hagels were involved in litigation with a group of people that had established a gun club on property adjacent to the "Singing Hills." Ultimately, the court decided the matter in the Hagels' favor, but Hansel was forced to sell a portion of her land in the year after Otto's death to raise money. Hansel continued to work on getting her manuscript published in the years after Otto's death, seeking the advice of John Morris, Edward Thompson, and others. In 1983 the first retrospective exhibition of the photographic work of Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth took place in Germany under the title "Das andere Amerika - Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971." At the suggestion of Josephine Alexander, Hansel applied for and obtained a grant of $5000 from the Margaret Mahler Foundation to organize and preserve the great body of work that she and Otto had built up. In 1989 the Eye Gallery in San Francisco mounted an exhibit of their work under the title "A Lifetime of Concerned Photography." In 1991 another German exhibition, this one called "Simple Life - Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971," was assembled in the Hagels' hometown of Fellbach. Hansel suffered a stroke in 1996 but continued to promote the work of herself and her late husband during this period. She died on Valentine's Day, 1998.

From the description of Papers of Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel, 1911-1998, (bulk 1937-1990). (University of Arizona). WorldCat record id: 708260777

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Ark ID:
w60g4ng9
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Subjects:

  • Strikes and lockouts--Agricultural laborers--Photographs
  • Photography
  • Agricultural laborers--Political activity--History--20th century--Photographs
  • Photographers
  • Cotton growing--Photographs

Occupations:

  • Photographers

Places:

  • California (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)