Sunday, January 25, 2009

Karl Bissinger presente!

Beloved longtime WRL staff member Karl Bissinger succumbed to a stroke on November 19. Karl was an energetic and creative fund raiser, an enthusiastic civil disobedient, a generous host to countless meetings, a tireless counselor for Vietnam draft refusers, and a loyal and supportive friend to hundreds of Greenwich Village artists and activists and a devoted, loving partner to Dick Hanley.


Before joining WRL, Karl was a world-renowned photographer and served as a draft counselor and underground railroad conductor for thousands of Vietnam-era resisters.  WIN magazine will present a retrospective of Karl's life in our next issue.


A memorial for long-time War Resisters League staff member Karl Bissinger will be held on Thursday, Jan 29, 6 pm in the Community Room at Westbeth (155 Bank Street) in the west Village.  Westbeth, with entrances mid-block at 55 Bethune Street or through courtyard at Bank Street, is on a block bounded by West, Bank, Bethune, and Washington Streets.  Closest subway is "14th St." on the 2 & 3 trains.


Karl, who died last November, began his involvement with WRL and the peace movement 50 years ago and was on the WRL staff from 1973 to 2006. In the 1940s and 50s he was a noted photographer before getting involved in the peace movement. Below is a prominent obituary which appeared in the New York Times.


For more information, please call 718-768-7306 or email the War Resisters League NYC Local at


Karl Bissinger, Portraitist, Dies at 94



Published: November 25, 2008

Karl Bissinger, whose lustrous black and white portraits created a memorable gallery of the leading figures on the postwar American arts scene, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

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Catherine Johnson, 2005

His death was confirmed by Catherine Johnson, the editor of “The Luminous Years: Portraits at Mid-Century,” a collection of Mr. Bissinger’s work.

As a photographer for magazines like Flair, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Town & Country, Mr. Bissinger created indelible images of the new generation of writers, actors, dancers and free spirits who were reshaping American culture after World War II. He photographed an absurdly youthful Truman Capote on the set of a Jean Cocteau film in Paris, a skinny Marlon Brando leaning languidly in front of a round window in a Manhattan sublet and Paul Bowles sitting cross-legged against the tiled walls of a cafe in Marrakesh.

One of his most recognizable photographs, taken in 1949, shows Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, the Balanchine ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, the artist Buffie Johnson (who died in 2006) and others seated around a table in the garden of the Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan, their faces bright with promise. It is, in effect, a class picture of the young and the talented in the American arts, more than ready for their close-ups.

Mr. Bissinger’s photographs split the difference between high-gloss fashion photography and reportage, reflecting the rawer, more emotive style asserting itself across the arts in the postwar era.

“These were true environmental portraits,” Catherine Johnson said. “These people did not have publicists or handlers. They came in their own clothes, without makeup. He often said that environment is a psychological mirror.”

Mr. Bissinger was born in 1914 in Cincinnati, where he began studying art at the Cincinnati Art Museum while in high school. He then moved to Manhattan and enrolled in the Art Students League, where he studied painting.

After decorating windows for Lord & Taylor in the 1940s, he found work as a stylist for the Condé Nast photographic studios, where he worked with, and befriended, several of the staff photographers, including Irving Penn, George Hoyningen-Huene, John Rawlings and Cecil Beaton. Richard Avedon, one of several friends with whom Mr. Bissinger shared a cottage on Fire Island, encouraged him to take his own pictures, lending him cameras and his studio for his first test photographs. His first subjects were Avedon’s wife, Doe, and the writer James Baldwin.

Lillian Bassman, the art director for Hearst magazines, gave Mr. Bissinger his first assignment, for the newly created Junior Bazaar. He soon began doing portraits and the occasional fashion shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Theater Arts and Town & Country, gravitating toward painters, poets and writers as subjects.

“I was drawn to portraits of artists for the obvious reason,” he said. “Their world was more interesting to me than the fashion scene.”

Many of his portraits and travel photographs appeared in the 12 issues of the short-lived but influential magazine Flair, edited by Fleur Cowles. As a staff photographer for Flair Mr. Bissinger photographed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John Wayne, John Ford, Gary Cooper, Colette and Katharine Hepburn. His work for Flair and Theater Arts was collected in “The Luminous Years” (Abrams, 2003).

In the early 1950s Mr. Bissinger’s interests swung to politics, and he gradually abandoned photography. A onetime member of the Communist Party, he became active in several peace organizations. In the early 1960s, at a demonstration against air-raid drills, he met Judith Malina and Julian Beck, the founders of the Living Theater, and for several years took up his camera again to record their performances. As the Vietnam War heated up, however, he devoted nearly all his time to working as a draft counselor at the Greenwich Village Peace Center. Later, as a member of the War Resisters League, he crusaded for nuclear disarmament.

He is survived by his son, David B. Fechheimer of San Francisco, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Bissinger took many photographs at the Cafe Nicholson, the restaurant on East 58th Street he had created with Johnny Nicholson, a fellow window-dresser from Lord & Taylor. A favorite with artists and a launching pad for the chef Edna Lewis, it made a natural setting for a photograph illustrating an article in the first issue of Flair, “The New Bohemians.”

“I do not know what effect the picture has on those who now look at it, but I think it perfectly evokes an optimistic time in our history that we’re not apt to see again soon,” Mr. Vidal wrote in Smithsonian magazine last year. “So study this picture, and see what optimistic people looked like as they began what they thought would be lifelong careers, and in some cases indeed lasted as we lost more and more of a country that is no country without Karl Bissinger to make art of it.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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