The death of Len Speier, photographer of the human condition
Len Speier’s images capture the spontaneous humor and peculiarities of the human condition. Speier delighted in the odd moment, the unexpected juxtaposition, the sudden reveal of a subject’s true self.
Born in New York City in 1927, Speier was taken with photography from the moment he was given a primitive film developing kit for his thirteenth birthday. After college, a stint in the Army with the First Cavalry Division, law school, and a private practice, he managed to return to his first love, the photo arts, and was so engaged for nearly five decades.
Known primarily for his 35mm black and white photographs, Speier shot extensively in New York City, punctuating this lifelong residency with trips to various other parts of the world, including China, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Suriname, and Japan.
Speier worked in the street photography genre that developed around Henri Cartier-Bresson, influenced also by the work of contemporaries Robert Frank and William Klein. He saw photography as an ongoing aesthetic (and humanist) adventure – one that allowed him to elevate his natural talent as a communicator into a highly evolved form of social interaction.
Speier also taught photography at various New York City venues – The New School, New York University and, for over 16 years, the Fashion Institute of Technology. For ten years, Speier mentored children of color in the art of photography for the NAACP’s ACT-SO program.
In later life, Speier embraced digital technology, trading his darkroom for a high-end inkjet printer. He continued to shoot and print until his death in February 2017.
Speier’s work is in the Permanent Collection of the International Center of Photography, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Erie Art Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, the Photo Archive of the New York Public Library, and numerous private collections. He exhibited widely; digital prints of Speier’s iconic images are currently on view at the Blank Wall Gallery in Athens, Greece, and a retrospective exhibition of vintage black and white prints was held last year at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in Chelsea. Speier lived in New York City but saw himself as a citizen of the world.