The big picture: Sabine Weiss’s surreal vision of Paris

This picture dramatises the two distinct sides of Sabine Weiss’s art. Weiss, born in Switzerland in 1923, had made her name as a photographer taking pictures of children and homeless people on the bomb-blasted streets of Europe after the second world war. At the recommendation of the celebrated Robert Doisneau, who had seen her work, she was taken on by French Vogue in 1953 and sent out on fashion and portrait assignments. Often, as here, she found ways to make those two worlds collide. Commissioned to photograph the shop display of the department store Printemps, her camera was drawn to the man asleep on the pavement outside. The garden party of the window display, with this framing, became a kind of surrealist painting or a feverish hangover dream, random hats and chairs looming large.

Weiss died at the end of last year, aged 97. This picture features in a new book and retrospective of her pioneering work, called The Poetry of the Instant. She lived for 70 years in a tiny studio behind some of the grander houses of Paris’s 16th arrondissement. In the evenings, often with her husband, the American painter Hugh Weiss, she would wander the neighbourhood in search of photographs. Aged 93, she noted that “I would never leave home telling myself, ‘I’m going to photograph some tramps today.’ Everything I did was a rapid and spontaneous reaction to what was going on around me.”

Her camera gave her a passport to places and lives sometimes hard to access for a woman in the 1950s. She had a singular journalistic principle: “Whenever I saw a door marked with a no-entry sign, I always opened it.” The result, in thousands of images, was a kind of singular backstage vision of Paris as it tried to rediscover its humanity and heart after the war.

  • Sabine Weiss: The Poetry of the Instant is at the Casa dei Tre Oci, Venice until 23 October, with an accompanying catalogue published by Marsilio (£38)