Born in Hungary in 1901, Lucien Aigner’s parents thought their son was destined to study law. But Aigner had different ideas about where he was headed, especially after receiving a box Brownie camera for his ninth birthday. A few years later, as a cub reporter, he took his first pictures with his folding Ica Atom for the Hungarian daily Az Est and, then, an event that truly changed the course of Aigner’s life: the day he was called to his editor’s office and introduced to a man Aigner described as a “gremlin-like creature,” an American photographer named James Abbe. Aigner was assigned to escort Abbe around Budapest to help him get a picture story about Hungary for a British magazine. As Aigner later wrote, “Our Budapest adventure was so successful that he offered me a job as his manager in Paris. Since his offer was accompanied by a check for travel and my intent since childhood had been to seek a career abroad, I accepted. Thus my `cub’ reporting days with Az Est came to an abrupt end and at the age of 24, I was off to Paris to join Abbe.”
Aigner soon found that his new boss was not nearly as ambitious as he. In fact, Abbe would often cancel portrait sittings and other photo assignments just because he wasn’t “in the mood” to work. That, combined with Aigner’s lack of proficiency in the French language led the young reporter to the `universal language’ of photography and the newest camera on the market at the time, the Leica.
Back then, cameras were not only cumbersome but news photographers were restricted to roped-off areas so that they wouldn’t interfere with official proceedings. This meant that most photos of news events featured subjects lined up, stiffly facing the cameras, what we know today as the “photo op!” By the early 30’s, as tensions rose in Europe, Aigner and his contemporaries – including Alfred Eisenstaedt and Robert Capa – began using the recently invented and unobtrusive 35mm Leica cameras to cover events. This allowed them to capture more spontaneous news events and helped to lay the foundation of modern photojournalism. In addition, since Aigner was quite short (just over five feet tall), security barely noticed him and he was able to take photos that quickly won him the recognition of European magazine and news editors – and lots of work.
“He was one of the pioneering group of photojournalists who delighted in the candid – the quick grab,” said Andrew Eskind, a photo-historian at the George Eastman House museum in Rochester, NY. “They were the last generation to be able to get away with it.” In fact, they may have been the original “paparazzi” – how things have changed since then!
He first came to the United States in 1936 on an assignment, which is when he first met Sara Delano Roosevelt, the President’s mother. She would later help him to settle permanently in America. By then – it was 1938 -- he was married with a young son, and, with war brewing in Europe, he decided to leave Paris for the U.S., knowing that his brother, Etienne, his sister, Betty, and their spous es would remain behind. As he planned his family’s departure, he had a difficult choice to make. “We had space on the ship to take either the baby carriage for my infant son or 50,000 of my negatives in a suitcase. We took the baby carriage.” He left the suitcase in the bathtub of his sister’s apartment in Paris to protect it from bombs. The apartment was taken over by German troops, but, months later, Aigner’s brother went back to find the battered suitcase, still intact – saved by the concierge who had hidden it from the Germans. Years later, when Aigner brought his siblings to the U.S., Etienne brought with him the famous “suitcase”, which Aigner promptly stored in his basement – and forgot about for years.
In the late 1940’s, he became a radio announcer and eventually a producer and director at the Voice of America. In the early 50’s, divorced and with two sons (His two daughters remained with their mother.), he moved to the Berkshires, where he remarried and ran a portrait studio in Great Barrington, MA for the next 20 years.
In the late 1970’s, when Eastman Kodak asked him to test some new photo paper, he remembered the “suitcase”. He gave up his portrait studio to focus on cataloguing and indexing his nearly 100,000 negatives and exhibiting his work around the world, a project he worked on til his death.
(Excerpts from the New York Times, April 2, 1999; Aigner’s New York, 1993; Boston Globe, March 31, 1999)