WASHINGTON — Lida Moser, a photographer who trained her camera on faces and scenes that reflected life as it was experienced in New York and elsewhere during the second half of the 20th century, died Aug. 11 at a nursing facility in Rockville, Maryland. She was 93.
The cause was congestive heart failure and other ailments, said a nephew, Rudy Hewitt.
Moser was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and began her decades-long career in New York City in the late 1940s.
She became a photographer for Look magazine and Vogue, among other showcases for photography, wrote the “Camera” column for The New York Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and published several books on her art form.
“When I became a photographer,” she wrote in a letter to Washington City Paper, “I was determined to use photography as a magic key into as many aspects of life as I possibly could.”
Moser was particularly known for her photography of her hometown — the place that she called “dirty, wild, noisy, criminal New York.” She trained as an assistant to Berenice Abbott, the trailblazing modernist photographer, and was inspired by her collection of images by Eugene Atget, the French photographer known for his perceptive documentation of Parisian life.
In her own work, Moser captured the Escher-like geometry of the Exxon building, the confident smiles of four boys in Harlem, the distance between two men seated inches apart on a city bench, the lonely anonymity of an office lobby and the peaceful solitude of a man resting next to a neat row of garbage cans.
One of her most noted works was “Judy and the Boys,” or “Mimicry.” Taken in 1961, the image reveals an encounter between a model — Moser’s intended subject — and a group of youngsters who invite themselves into the photo shoot. Surrounded by the grittiness of New York, the model strikes a sophisticated pose and raises her middle finger to the boys as they mimic her stance.
“I love that boy,” Moser told the City Paper years later, referring to the most brazen of the children. “He’s so brave. I bet he’s a huge success somewhere today.”
The library of the National Gallery of Art in Washington maintains 800 photographs and negatives from Moser’s collection. Her work also is held at the Phillips Collection, among other Washington-area institutions, and museums around the world, including the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington holds several of Moser’s portraits, including one of painter Alice Neel. Neel’s portrait of Moser is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Lida Moser was born Aug. 17, 1920, in New York City.
After civilian service in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, she was a receptionist in the film section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There, she recalled, she became acquainted with film director John Huston, who was doing research at the archive, and was inspired to work in film. Moser turned to still photography after her work with Abbott.
One of her first major projects was traveling to Scotland to photograph intellectuals for Vogue magazine. Vogue also set her to Canada, where she accompanied an ethnographic mission to capture Quebec’s changing region.
“It was amazing,” Moser told City Paper. “We went into some deep rural areas that had hardly been photographed. While the men spoke with the locals, I hopped around in the background, shooting photos. I felt like these people were laying bare their world to me.”
She took pride in exploring many kinds of photography, from portraiture to still life to architectural documentation to photo illustration. Among her more unusual assignments were cover designs for horror novels. “I’d rent skulls,” she told the Scotsman newspaper. “You know you can rent anything in New York.”
Moser lived for most of her life in New York before moving to Northampton, Massachusetts, and then to Rockville 12 years ago. She had no immediate survivors.
“I open the lens,” she once told a Scottish interviewer, “and let life come in and pray it will imprint itself on the negative.”