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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Lucien Aigner

Dates:  1901, 14 September - 1999, 29 March
Born:  Hungary, Érsekújvár (now Nové Zámky, Slovak Republic)
Died:  US, MA, Waltham
Active:  Hungary / France / US

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Lucien Aigner
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

Born Nove Zamky, Slovakia (then Ersekujvar, Hungary) 1901, died Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 1999.
Lucien Aigner studied law at the University of Budapest, having previously studied theatre in Berlin and worked as an assistant cameraman to Stefan Lorant (a lifelong friend, who later became one of the most influential picture editors of the early 20th century). In 1924 he became a reporter for the Hungarian newspaper group Az Est. A keen photographer (he was given a box Brownie camera for his 9th birthday), Aigner started to illustrate his articles with his own photographs.
In 1925 he moved to Paris to act as manager for a photographer – a short-lived association – and continued to work as a correspondent for Az Est. Because of his poor French, Aigner bought a Leica and concentrated more on photography. He soon became known for his informal ‘grabbed’ shots of political figures and published picture stories in the leading illustrated magazines in France, Germany and England.
After a trip to America in 1936, Aigner became the Life magazine correspondent in Paris. He moved to America in 1939 and settled in New York. In 1947 he got a job in radio broadcasting, in the Hungarian section of Voice of America, but was forced out of this post in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. He moved to New England and set up a portrait studio. The discovery of the negatives of his European photographs in an old suitcase in 1970 prompted renewed interest in Aigner’s life and work. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
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Unidentified photographer
Partially hidden behind a curtain, photographer Lucien Aigner snaps a photograph at a disarmament conference 
Family history 
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Supplemental information

Chronology compiled by Jennifer Uhrhane
1901Lucien (László) Aigner born September 14, Érsekújvár, Hungary (now Nové Zámky, Slovak Republic).
1907Aigner family moves to Budapest.
1910Lucien receives first camera from his uncle Joseph, an artist.
1919Moves to Prague, applies to medical school and is accepted, but decides against medicine.
1920Moves to Berlin, enrolls in drama school, meets and works for Stefan Lorant, a writer, photographer and filmmaker; they become lifelong friends.1
c.1922Aigner contracts tuberculosis, returns to Budapest to recover.
Converts to Protestantism from Judaism.
1924Earns law degree at University of Budapest.
Works at law firm for about six months, then is fired.
Becomes reporter for Az Est newspaper.
1925Begins taking pictures to illustrate news articles with folding Ica Atom glass-plate camera.
Leica 35mm camera arrives on the consumer market.
American photographer James Abbe hires Aigner to guide him around Budapest.
1926Aigner moves to Paris to work as Abbe’s manager.
Continues at Az Est as Paris correspondent, later as Paris Bureau Chief.
c.1927Quits working for Abbe due to personality conflicts.
Forms ARAL press agency with Hungarian friend and journalist, Louis Aczél.
1928Buys first Leica camera from Abbe, who discards it after he experiences problems while photographing the Mexican Civil War.
1931ARAL hires Victor Ronai, then André Kertész, both Hungarian photographers. Soon after, Aigner decides to exclusively shoot his own photographs for ARAL articles.
Aigner’s first major photo shoot with the Leica, at Paris stock exchange.
First major article published with his photographs, in VU (Paris), the presidential election at Versailles.
1930sARAL produces a multitude of photographs and stories for major European photo-illustrated periodicals, including Adam: la Revue de l’Homme (Paris), L’Illustration (Paris), Miroir du Monde (Paris), Münchner Illustriertre Presse (Munich), Picture Post (London), and VU (Paris).
1932Publishes book: Lucien Aigner and Louis Aczčl, Are we to Disarm: A Pictorial Record of the Disarmament Conference, Geneva (Geneva: Art en Suisse).
Marries first wife, Anne (Mady) Lenard.
c.1934ARAL hires Aigner’s sister, Elizabeth “Betty” (born Erzsébet) Zweigenthal2, as secretary and manager; later, writer and photographer.
1936Aigner’s first trip to New York, photographs Rikers Island Penitentiary, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Harlem neighborhoods.
Accepts six-month contract with newly launched Life magazine, as European correspondent.
1938Because of Aigner’s Jewish background, remaining in Europe is risky. Using his still-valid U.S. visitor’s visa and Hungarian passports, Aigner, Mady and first son John, leave for New York City, arriving in 1939. They leave behind a suitcase of negatives in order to bring baby carriage. Intending to return, they keep Paris apartment.
World War II begins, Aigners become enemy aliens living in U.S.
1940Betty and husband take over ARAL operations and move into Aigner’s apartment, but as war begins, flee to central France with Lucien’s and Betty’s brother, Etienne (born István) and extended family.
1940sGerman army requisitions Aigner’s apartment during occupation of Paris.
Aczél returns to Hungary from Paris, and is sent to concentration camp, where he dies.
Aigner continues photographic practice in U.S., supplying pictures for The New York Times, Newsweek, Click, Christian Science Monitor, and others. Important work includes photo essay of Albert Einstein.
1942Betty, her mother, and husband obtain visas and arrive in U.S.
1945Etienne and family return to Paris after war ends and move in with his sister-in-law, Pauline Brody.
Aigner gains U.S. citizenship.
1947Becomes Voice of America Hungarian section radio producer and director; works for his friend, Árpád Erdös.
1950Etienne obtains visa and arrives in U.S. with suitcase of Lucien’s negatives (wife and daughter arrive a few months later).3
1954Aigner leaves Voice of America due to McCarthyist persecution and marital problems. Mady has affair with Erdös, files for divorce, and moves to Florida with Aigner’s two daughters.
Aigner moves to Great Barrington, MA, with his and Mady’s two sons, opens a photo studio.
1955Aigner remarries, to Mildred Allen.
1950s-60sContinues photographic career, takes theater performance and wedding pictures, formal portraits, and school yearbook photos, works on assignment for major magazines and newspapers, exhibits locally, and writes articles on photography.
c.1970Opens suitcase, stored under darkroom enlarger. Encouraged by Mildred, brings a selection of work to George Eastman House Museum of Photography, then Bibliothčque Nationale de France for evaluation. Both purchase a quantity of prints.
1975Publishes book: Lucien Aigner: Entre Deux Mondes un Maître du Photo-reportage Témoigne (Great Barrington, MA: Editions Aral). Receives National Endowment for the Arts Grant.
1976Ceases photo studio work to concentrate on exhibitions and organizing archive of negatives, prints, and supporting materials. Continues this work through the 1990s.
1977Receives National Endowment for the Arts Grant.
1979Publishes book: John P. Aigner, ed., Lucien Aigner (New York: International Center of Photography).
1982Publishes book: Aigner’s Paris (Stockholm: Fotografiska Museet).
1987Publishes book: Aigner’s Paris: 50 Years Later (Dalton, MA: Studley Press).
1992Wife, Mildred, dies on August 29 in Great Barrington, MA.
1993Publishes book: Aigner’s New York (Great Barrington, MA: Lucien Aigner Museum, Inc.).
1999Lucien Aigner dies on March 29, Waltham, MA.

Aigner’s unpublished memoirs in the Lucien Aigner Estate archive and Etienne Aigner’s unpublished memoirs, provided by the Aigner family. Also: John P. Aigner, ed., Lucien Aigner, ICP Library of Photographers (New York: International Center of Photography, 1979); Lucien Aigner, Aigner’s Paris (Stockholm: Fotografiska Museet, 1982); Michael Hallett, “Obituary: Lucien Aigner,” The Independent (March 31, 1999),; “Lucien Aigner: A Life with the Camera,” WGBY-TV television documentary (Springfield, MA: Yellow Cat Productions, 1987); Paul E. Sigrist, Jr., “Ellis Island Oral History Project, series EI, no. 406: Interview of Lucien Aigner” (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2004); and Betty Zentall’s memoirs, From the Danube to the Pacific (Los Angeles: Forward Press, 1998).
1. Lorant later published Aigner’s photographs in the many major photo-illustrated magazines he edited and/or founded, including Lilliput, Münchner Illustriertre Presse, Pesti Napló, Picture Post, and Weekly Illustrated. He also advised Henry Luce on his founding of Life magazine.
2. According to my research at Aigner’s archive and Betty’s autobiography, she also took pictures for ARAL (borrowed Lucien’s Leica), and wrote or contributed to ARAL stories. Some of the prints in Aigner’s archive are Betty’s, others may be, but sorting out which ones is a research project for another time. Betty, as a female photojournalist in the 1930s, is even less documented than her brother. Zweigenthal, her married name, changed to Zentall when she immigrated to the U.S.
3. The “suitcase story” has a number of variations, according to the three siblings’ memoirs. Aigner wrote that he left the suitcase in his bathtub when he moved to the U.S., while Betty wrote that when the war began, before she left Paris, she and her mother filled a suitcase with Aigner’s negatives and left it in her mother’s apartment bathtub. During the war, Etienne’s sister- and brother-in-law, Paulette and Béla Brody, returned to Paris ahead of the rest of the family and offered to empty Etienne and Lucien’s apartments. Etienne recalled that Paulette brought the suitcase to her own apartment, where Etienne lived after the war ended, until he left for the U.S. Perhaps Aigner left his negatives at his apartment for Betty to use as she continued to run ARAL and live there in his absence. Then, she left them in a suitcase in her own (Lucien’s), instead of her mother’s, apartment bathtub when she fled Paris with her husband, mother and Etienne.
Public Collections
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
Akron Art Museum, Akron, OH
Bibliothčque Nationale de France, Paris, France
The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki, Finland
Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland
George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY
Hungarian Museum of Photography, Kecskemét, Hungary
International Center of Photography, New York, NY
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN
Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland
Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône, France
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, Germany
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
Staatliche Landesbildstelle Museum, Hamburg, Germany
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom  

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.206-207 [Includes a well written short biography on Lucien Aigner with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
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