Lorant, Stefan, 1901-1997

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1901-02-22
Death 1997-11-14
English

Biographical notes:

Stefan Lorant is widely acknowledged as a founder of modern pictorial journalism. After growing up amid his family's studio photography business in Budapest, he pursued a career in silent-filmmaking in Vienna and Berlin, then went on to both found and edit picture magazines in Germany, Hungary, and England. In 1940 he came to America and began writing and producing photographically-illustrated history books.

From the description of Stefan Lorant collection, ca. 1869-1993 (bulk 1920-1992). (Getty Research Institute). WorldCat record id: 82595163

Biographical/Historical Note

Stefan Lorant was born Lóránt Istvánt in Budapest on February 22, 1901. His father was director of Erdélyi, the largest photographic studio in Budapest. Lorant attended the Lutheran Evangelical Gymnasium and the Academy of Economics, where his classmates included Johnny von Neumann and Nobel laureates Eugene Wigner, Dennis Gábor, and Georg von Bekesy. Lorant began taking photographs with a postcard camera, progressed to portrait photos, and in 1914 started publishing photos in Budapest newspapers and magazines. (See Appendix B, Supplement to "I have lived six lives" for a checklist of these photos and other facets of his achievements.) In July 1916 he took movie stills for a film in Budapest. Later that year, a twenty-five line article that accompanied one of his photos became his first byline.

On Oct. 18, 1919, Lorant fled the White Terror in Hungary. Unable to obtain a visa to enter Germany, he worked in Tetschen (now Podmokly), Czechoslovakia, playing the violin in a small orchestra accompanying silent movies. (He later learned that Franz Kafka had suggested that he be hired.) After six months, he traveled to Berlin, which was in the midst of the Kapp putsch (an armed revolt to restore the German monarchy in 1920), prompting Lorant to leave immediately for Vienna. There he found work as a stills photographer with a movie studio and soon progressed to second cameraman on a film of Mozart's life. Lorant also wrote plays during this period. His film making career continued in Berlin where he made eight films as cameraman, scriptwriter and director. He worked extensively with Conrad Veidt and other movie pioneers and gave Marlene Dietrich her first screen test in the summer of 1921. A complete filmography is in Appendix B.

Lorant grew weary of the movie business, and as his German reached fluency he wrote articles for newspapers, beginning with the Neue Berliner Zeitung in 1923. He became a contributor to Das Magazin in September 1925 and soon became its assistant editor, and finally its chief editor. From January to July 1927 he edited Ufa Magazin and went on to the helm of Der Ton . The following year he edited Berlin's Bilder Courier . He wrote numerous articles, many under pseudonyms, for these publications and others during these years.

The most creative phase of his editorial career began when Lorant was appointed Berlin editor of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse ( MIP ) in June, 1929; he became its chief editor in Munich a brief time later and held this post until placed in "protective custody" by Hitler on March 14, 1933. With his persuasive handling of visual material for the MIP, Lorant exemplified a new vitality in selection, spacing, and arrangement. Circulation reached 750,000 under his editorship. He published the early photographs of Felix Man, Kurt Hutton (Hübschmann), André Kertész, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dr. Erich Salomon, and Robert Capa.

Lorant rode the crest of new picture-taking possibilities that had been opened by the introduction of miniature cameras fitted with high-speed lenses and loaded with fast film. Modern photojournalism was a product of these new cameras, particularly the Leica, converging with roles played by the creative editor, a new kind of photo reporter, and the economic element of competition between the growing number of illustrated magazines for higher profit from higher advertising rates. The photographer was expected to shoot sequences that might be cropped, edited and arranged to form a narrative in pictures with only a minimum of text, making it almost possible to "forget reading." The naturalness and psychological intensity of the MIP and other pictorial weeklies contrasted sharply with the usual stiffly posed portraits of politicos and celebrities. It is worth noting that the photographically-illustrated magazine actually began in Germany when the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung ( BIZ ) introduced halftone reproduction in the 1890's. Lorant's innovations appeared among the host of new weeklies that had proliferated in Germany after 1918.

Simon Guttmann, director of the Dephot picture agency in Berlin, sold many photographs to Lorant. A new role for the picture agency developed under men like Guttmann. Agencies now concerned themselves with generating story ideas, making assignments and collecting fees in addition to maintaining files of pictures from which editors might choose suitable pictures. They often mediated between the publisher and photographer. When Lorant was Berlin editor of MIP there were seven Berlin photo agencies from which he could choose pictures, as well as from the new wave of free-lance photographers. Newer agencies, such as Guttmann's, offered a choice of single pictures or complete photo stories. The editor's right to refuse commissioned work allowed him to shape the photographer's approach to a story. Lorant used his control to systematically explore the photographic interpretation of a theme rather than a chronological depiction of an event. Lorant never consulted with the photographer about the picture selection or layout. In his own words: "I never asked or consulted anybody. I never had an editorial meeting." [Phone conversation, April, 1993]

In Germany and Hungary, Lorant helped to shape the new generation of photographically-illustrated news magazines with his talent for combining images with words and his flair for storytelling through sequences of pictures. Upon delivery of the prints, the editor took over, though staff writers often provided copy. The words were chosen to explain or illuminate the photos, not to repeat their content. Lorant's criteria for photo selection were simply stated: "That the photograph should not be posed; the camera should be like the notebook of a trained reporter, which records contemporary events as they happen without trying to make a picture; that people should be photographed as they really are and not as they would like to appear; that photo-reportage should concern itself with men and women of every kind and not simply with a small social clique; that everyday life should be portrayed in a realistic unselfconscious way" [Quoted in John R. Whiting, Photography is a Language (New York: Ziff-Davis, 1946].

On March 14, 1933, just after Hitler seized the Bavarian government, Lorant was imprisoned. Appeals by Hungarian journalists and a debate in the parliament resulted in the Hungarian government securing his release in September 1933. He returned to Hungary for another six months to edit two issues of the Sunday magazine Pesti Naplo and write the book I Was Hitler's Prisoner . Budapest was still a precarious refuge, and he left for England on April 17, 1934 to find an editor for his prison memoir. Through the editor, Robert Fraser, he met the owner of the weekly paper, The Clarion, and was invited to make a dummy for a new magazine. This was eventually published as the Weekly Illustrated, with Lorant as editor, in 1934. Henry Luce and Lorant were friends; when Luce established Life magazine in 1936, he adopted many aspects of Weekly Illustrated . (Lorant was offered the editorship of Life but refused, objecting to "editing by consensus.")

Lorant set up the company Pocket Publications in 1937 and issued the magazine Lilliput . Contributors to its strong anti-totalitarian stance included Upton Sinclair, Walter Lippmann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell and Ernst Toller.

In October 1938, Edward Hulton, owner of the Hulton Press, purchased Lilliput from Lorant and offered him the chance to start what was to be the most successful and influential British news magazine, Picture Post . Here Lorant made his most significant contribution to British photojournalism, recording the full extent of Hitler's atrocities up to that time. With a circulation of 1,700,000, Picture Post provided a vast, popular readership which many individuals, particularly politicians, found desirable to cultivate. Lorant transformed the German photojournalistic experience into an acceptably British product with the help of exile photographers Kurt Hutton (Hübschmann) and Felix Man, and the British photographers Humphrey Spender and Bill Brandt. He also wrote numerous articles for French, English and Hungarian newspapers and magazines.

The British Home Secretary wanted to control Lorant with the implied threat of arrest or deportation in order to discourage him from publishing anything hostile to the Conservative government. Lorant feared being interned at an Isle of Man compound as a "sitting duck" for invading Germans. On July 23, 1939, a front page attack on Lorant appeared in the Nazi state newspaper Völkischer Beobachter and he was among those at the top of the Gestapo death list. Britain too was becoming a precarious refuge.

As a friend and confidant of Winston Churchill, he traveled to America at Churchill's behest in December 1939 to edit a special Picture Post issue on the United States. He was assisted on this project by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and Luce. He returned to England in February 1940. Lorant revisited America in July 1940 and traveled coast to coast on a "working vacation." He decided to remain in the United States on November 11, 1940, settling in the Berkshire mountains near Lenox, Massachusetts. He was widely quoted at the time for the comment: "Hitler can't hang 50 million Englishmen from lamp-posts, but he can hang 50,000 bloody German Jews, and I don't want to be one of them." He became a naturalized American citizen in 1948.

In the United States he has produced pictorial history books, mainly on American history and presidents, in the same style as his magazines, using sequences rather than single images, captions that "enhance rather than explain" the photographs, and pitched "so that an averagely intelligent 15 year old can follow it easily." Lorant had published two pictorial books in Germany: Wir vom Film (1928, reprinted 1986) and So sehen Wir aus (1930). His original book on Lincoln (1941) included every known photograph, with a number he himself had unearthed. He published countless other historical images for the first time. A tireless researcher, he procured most photographs one by one, following hundreds of letters and leads. He amassed over 30,000 images relating to the American presidency. None of his books have had print runs below 100,000 and some have topped 600,000. Edgar Kaufmann Jr, owner of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Fallingwater" house in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, persuaded him to compile and edit a book on Pittsburgh. Lorant hired W. Eugene Smith to take pictures of Pittsburgh for the book. (A complete listing of Lorant's books is in Appendix B.)

Lorant received an M.A. in history from Harvard at the age of 60. He has received honorary doctorates from Syracuse University, the University of Bradford and Knox College. In 1990 he returned to England after a fifty-year hiatus for honors at the National Museum of Photography in Bradford. He received the Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement from the International Center of Photography in 1992.

Lorant married three times and has three children. He describes himself as "a Hungarian journalist who doesn't believe what he reads in the papers."

From the guide to the Stefan Lorant collection, ca. 1869-1993, 1920-1992, (Getty Research Institute)

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Subjects:

  • Silent films--Germany--Berlin
  • Governors--Biography
  • Regional planning
  • City planning--History
  • City planning
  • Mayors--Biography
  • Community development
  • Silent films
  • Kristallnacht, 1938
  • Silent films--Austria--Vienna
  • Community development corporations
  • Economic assistance, Domestic
  • Constitutional history
  • Civic improvement
  • Urban renewal--History
  • Constitutional history--Germany
  • Community development corporations--Periodicals

Occupations:

  • Photographers

Places:

  • Germany—Social life and customs—20th century (as recorded)
  • Austria--Vienna (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area (as recorded)
  • Germany—Defenses (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—1871-1918 (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—Night of the Long Knives, 1934 (as recorded)
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Germany—Economic conditions—1918-1945 (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—1933-1945 (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh Region (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—Allied occupation, 1918-1930 (as recorded)
  • Germany—Politics and government—1871-1933 (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh Region (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—Beer Hall Putsch, 1923 (as recorded)
  • Germany—Intellectual life—20th century (as recorded)
  • Germany--Berlin (as recorded)
  • Videocassettes (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh Region (as recorded)
  • Germany—Foreign relations—1871-1918 (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—March Uprising, 1921 (as recorded)
  • Germany—Social conditions—1871-1918 (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh (as recorded)
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—Kapp Putsch, 1920 (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area (as recorded)
  • Germany—History—Revolution, 1918 (as recorded)