Photographers Johanna (Hansel) Mieth (1909-1998) and Otto Hagel (1909-1973) made notable contributions to the development of social documentary practice and photojournalism in the United States. Mieth and Hagel led lives fervently committed to social and political independence rather than commercial success or fame. In many instances, the documentary team not only chronicled their subjects, but worked and lived alongside them.
German émigrés, Mieth and Hagel spent their youth touring Europe and recording the events of their travels. Hagel left Germany in 1928 and entered the United States illegally at Baltimore. Mieth followed two years later and the couple was reunited in California in 1930. Having arrived at the height of the Great Depression, work was difficult to find, but Mieth and Hagel were part of the crew that constructed the Wawona tunnel just outside Yosemite Valley. Subsequently, they took jobs as migrant agricultural workers; this aided in the development of a humanistic sensitivity that characterizes their work. The photographs taken during this period documented the Hoovervilles around Sacramento, the miserable living conditions in the Mission District of San Francisco, the Salinas Lettuce Strike, the longshoremen and dockworkers of San Francisco and Oakland, and the lives of their fellow migrant workers.
In the 1930s, Hagel made an independent film on the labor conditions of California cotton pickers. Amidst the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, Hagel’s apartment was raided and the film was mysteriously lost. It resurfaced under the title “A Century of Progress” in the 1970s, and is recognized as a pioneering effort in social documentary filmmaking. Hagel continued to focus on labor struggles in his documentary photographic process. Although he produced major photo stories for LIFE and Fortune, Hagel guarded his status as a freelancer and took every opportunity to work outside mainstream media channels.
In contrast, Mieth became a staff photographer for LIFE within the first year of the magazine’s publication, in 1936. Her work was a vital part of the magazine for the next decade. In 1940, the couple married in a double ceremony with photographer Robert Capa and his fiancée Toni Sorrel. Hagel became a naturalized citizen this same year, assisted by the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted him to document his re-election campaign. Throughout the years of the Second World War, Mieth found fewer and fewer assignments and by 1945 the couple’s relations had become strained. As an increased stress, Mieth and Hagel were asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Neither of them was willing to compromise their political beliefs, even with the knowledge that their resistance to testify would undermine their commercial success. Instead, they moved north of San Francisco, and began a self-sufficient farm.
Between the 1950s and the 1970s, Mieth and Hagel continued to photograph and to combine their visual work with texts, resulting in a 1955 story in LIFE called “The Simple Life.” The same year, an image by Hagel was included in Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Collaboratively, the two photographers worked on a series documenting the lives of the Pomo Indians, an American Indian tribe indigenous to Sonoma County, California. After Hagel’s death in 1973, Mieth continued her work and promotion of social and political causes, until her death twenty-five years later in 1998.
In 1983, Das andere Amerika – Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971, the first retrospective of the pair’s photographic work, took place in Germany. In 1989, A Lifetime of Concerned Photography, was mounted at the Eye Gallery in San Francisco and in 1991, Simple Life – Fotografien aus Amerika 1929-1971, was organized in Hagel’s home town of Fellbach, Germany.
The Hansel Mieth/Otto Hagel Archives contains personal papers and photographic materials, correspondence files, manuscripts, financial records, biographical materials, exhibition materials, activity files, and audiovisual materials. The materials in the archive date from 1911-1998 with the bulk of the collection spanning from 1937-1990. Additionally, there are over 1,000 photographs in the Center’s fine print collection.