“I do not take snap-shots,” Evelyn Hofer once said. “No photographs of moments.... I’m not even interested in moments.” Hofer spent nearly two decades in New York, recording city life in elegant, carefully staged photographs that clashed with the gritty black-and-white shots of the post–W.W. II era. In the 1950s and 1960s, American cities were in the throes of change, with the civil-rights movement and the sexual revolution playing out against a backdrop of urban renewal and the Cold War. While contemporaries such as Garry Winogrand recorded liberation as a part of the crowd, Hofer stood outside—objective.

Hofer was born in Marburg, Germany, in 1922 and moved to Switzerland when she was 11, just as the Nazis took over Germany’s parliament. When she failed the Paris Conservatory’s admittance test in piano, her father, a pharmaceutical executive, urged Hofer to learn how to use a camera. She apprenticed in Zurich and Basel, maneuvering both 35-mm. and large-format equipment.

In 1944, Hofer’s family emigrated to Madrid; when Franco won the Spanish Civil War, they moved to Mexico City. Attitudes in the Mexican capital were hostile toward young female professionals, so Hofer moved to New York. She met Alexey Brodovitch, who published her work in Harper’s Bazaar. Though her pictures appeared alongside those of pioneers Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Lillian Bassman, Hofer struggled with commercial editorial work. Brodovitch berated her for taking portraits instead of fashion photographs. “I was terrified by those sittings,” she said, “and didn’t like the restrictions. I wanted to take photographs only for myself.”

A 1957 trip to Florence with the literary lioness Mary McCarthy set her on a new path—urban photo books, which she would create with writers such as V. S. Pritchett and Jan Morris. Hofer photographed cities as disparate as Dublin, Florence, New York, and Washington, D.C.

In Evelyn Hofer: Eyes on the City, which was published in conjunction with her retrospective at Atlanta’s High Museum, 100 of Hofer’s most celebrated prints are collected, making this a milestone book. Despite her achievements, Hofer has remained, in the words of The New York Times, “the most famous unknown photographer in America.” —Elena Clavarino

Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor at AIR MAIL