A long-lost work, an unknown master

Photographer and collector Edward Rosser first saw Emil Mayer‘s work 10 years ago at a Boston gallery, and he was instantly taken aback by the lyrical images of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Viennese Types

Rosser saw just two images and thought: “This is a great unknown photographer.”

Convinced he had stumbled upon the work of a master, Rosser became determined to make Mayer a household name. “I was feeling a real mission to make him known to the world,” he told Fotophile.com in a telephone interview.

An Austrian photographer, inventor and lawyer, Mayer has been largely unknown because much of his work is presumed to have been destroyed when Nazi troops entered his apartment following his suicide in 1938.

Rosser’s efforts to have Mayer’s 38-plate body of work, titled Wiener Typen, or Viennese Types, published were “heartbreaking” and, ultimately, fruitless. Eventually, Rosser launched his own imprint, Blind River Editions, to handle the job.

Now in its second printing, Viennese Types pays exquisite attention to details, such as layout and paper quality. The book highlights the essence of the monotone contact prints Mayer created circa 1910 using the bromide-and-oil process he refined and mastered.

At first glance, the images might look ordinary. A closer look, however, reveals a subtle gestural quality and a delicate compositional structure in the photographs Mayer made with a handheld camera.

Working around the same time as Eugène Atget (1856-1927), Mayer differed in that he portrayed human expression within the framework of street activities of a cross-section of Viennese. Whereas Atget captured “not people but the silent places where people used to be,” said Rosser, Mayer zeroed in on the expressionistic qualities of daily life.

The photos in Rosser’s book came from the only two Mayer collections known to exist, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the other from a set of images that once belonged to musician and photographer Graham Nash by way of Mack Lee of the Lee Gallery and Mayer’s niece.

There are no plans to exhibit the images from the Met collection, but Rosser said he would like to see a show dedicated to Mayer’s life and work.

“First and foremost, his sense of composition is incredibly refined,” Rosser said, comparing the images to what might come from the studio of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), the 17th-century Dutch master whose paintings are considered among the finest examples of portraits and daily scenes.

“He had such a great sense of human gesture,” Rosser said, adding that the moments Mayer caught are “very private, very profound and intimate.”

Mayer’s images capture the spirit of “the decisive moment,” a phrase that wouldn’t be coined until the next few decades by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-).

Even the images of people with their backs to Mayer’s camera are laden with real expressiveness.

Take, for instance, In Front of the Jewelry Display, in which a man and a woman stand before a store window. The man stands stiff-backed, leaning forward, as if to examine a price tag. Meanwhile, the woman, her elbows jutting out slightly and her posture tilted toward the glass, appears animated, even enthralled, by the jewels on which she has likely set her sights.

Precious few details of Mayer’s life are known. He was born in 1871 in Bohemia and lived a middle-class lifestyle in Vienna, where he worked as a lawyer, a photographer and an inventor. He published an authoritative book on the bromide-and-oil printing process, and he later gave up his law practice to focus on selling photographic supplies. He also developed an early light meter, which he marketed through several incarnations, Rosser said.

The collection of photographs in Viennese Types was selected as a cohesive body of work by Mayer himself. Only one other such example of his work exists — Wustelprater, a 1911 book he co-produced with well-known Austrian writer Felix Salten (1869-1945), the author of Bambi. The book focused on Vienna’s famous amusement park in the Prater and includes 75 of Mayer’s images of the people there, along with vignettes Salten wrote.

But the photographs in Viennese Types were never published, however, and only two sets of originals exist today.

Rosser, meanwhile, believes there could be another body of Mayer’s work out there, waiting to be discovered. “It just hasn’t surfaced,” he said.

Either way, Rosser is confident Mayer is on his way to earning the recognition he deserves.

“I feel quite sure that the finding of Mayer’s portfolio, Wiener Typen, will come to be seen as one of the most important photographic discoveries in the last 50 years,” he said, “and that the book will be eventually recognized as one of the greatest collections ever assembled by a photographer.”