American photojournalist Dan Weiner (b. New York City, NY, 12 October 1919; d. near Versailles, KY, 26 January 1959), despite a professional career that lasted only a scant ten years before his untimely death in a plane crash, remains one of the most important and most eloquent documentarians of life in the 1950s, both at home and abroad. He is widely credited for the pivotal role he played in the development of documentary and humanitarian photography.
Working during the heyday of the great picture magazines – Fortune, Collier’s, This Week, Life, and Look – he produced images, almost always of people, that are still widely recognized and reproduced more than half a century after his death.
Weiner’s parents were immigrants to New York City from Russia and Romania in the early 1900s; Dan grew up on East 104th Street, a middle-class neighborhood at the time, in a brownstone that his family shared with his grandparents. He attended New York City public schools and developed an interest in painting, much to the distress of his father, who had had little success in any of the several jobs he had held. In 1934 on his fifteenth birthday, Dan received his first camera, a 9 x 12cm Voigtlander, as a gift from an uncle and began to teach himself to photograph, develop, and print his pictures.
He studied painting at the Art Students League and later at the Pratt Institute, supporting himself by working during the day. He joined the Photo League, where he was associated with Paul Strand, Sol Libsohn, Dorothea Lange, and Sid Grossman, and became familiar with the work of the great photographers of the Depression era: Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lewis W. Hine, Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Brassai, and others. Soon he was teaching an advanced class at the League, while taking part in Grossman’s Documentary Class, out of which grew the “East Side Group,” photographing people and events around the lower East Side. As his wife Sandra, whom he met during this period, later wrote, it was “an inspiring period for a young photographer.”
Dan Weiner and daughter Dore
Weiner landed a job as an assistant to a commercial photographer, but continued to shoot people around the city and in Central Park. In 1942 he and Sandra were married, and Dan made the decision to give up painting and devote himself entirely to photography. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the Army Air Force as a photographer and instructor, stationed in Georgia where Sandra was able to join him for three of those years. An Air Force buddy gave him a 35mm Contax, and although he had never before used an eye-level camera, he took to it immediately, preferring its size, convenience, and relative unobtrusiveness.