Karl Bissinger was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1914. He studied art at the Cincinnati Art Museum as a high school student and moved to Manhattan, where he studied painting at the Art Students League of New York.
Bissinger's first connection to photography was when he was a stylist for the studios of Condé Nast Publications, where he developed relationships with some of the portrait and fashion photographers on staff, including Cecil Beaton, George Hoyningen-Huene, Irving Penn and John Rawlings. He was part of group that shared a residence on Fire Island with Richard Avedon, who lent him a camera and encouraged him to take pictures. His first photographic subjects were Avedon's wife and author James Baldwin.
His first assignment as a photographer was for Junior Bazaar and he started taking portraits and doing fashion shoots for Harper's Bazaar, Theater Arts, Town & Country and Vogue. He was staff photographer for the 12-issue lifespan of the magazine Flair, edited by Fleur Cowles, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gary Cooper, John Ford, Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne.
Bissinger developed an interest in the arts scene, photographing Truman Capote on the set of a film in Paris and Marlon Brando in front of a window in his New York City apartment. A 1949 photograph taken at a table in the garden of Manhattan's Café Nicholson of the up-and-coming in the arts world included artist Buffie Johnson, ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, author Gore Vidal, playwright Tennessee Williams and novelist Donald Windham, in what The New York Times described as "a class picture of the young and the talented in the American arts, more than ready for their close-ups". Café Nicholson, which he created with Johnny Nicholson, who had worked with him as a window-dresser at Lord & Taylor earlier in his career, was the frequent setting of his photographs.
Bissinger left photography as a profession in the 1950s and developed a focus on political issues, becoming involved in a number of peace organizations. He met Julian Beck and Judith Malina, founders of The Living Theatre, at a demonstration in the early 1960s and would take photos of the company's performances. He became a draft counselor during the Vietnam War, working full-time at the Greenwich Village Peace Center, providing guidance on avoiding being drafted for military service. He became an active member of the War Resisters League, advocating for nuclear disarmament.
Death and legacy
- The Luminous Years:Portraits at Mid-Century (Harry N.Abrams, 2003, ISBN 0810946025)
- "Karl Bissinger (1914 - 2008)", AncientFaces.
- Grimes, William. "Karl Bissinger, Portraitist, Dies at 94", The New York Times, November 25, 2008. Accessed November 26, 2008.
- Vidal, Gore. "Salad Days: Karl Bissinger's 1949 photograph of the author and a few friends at lunch in a Manhattan restaurant garden invokes the optimism of youth", Smithsonian, October 2007. Accessed November 26, 2008.
- Braun, Saul. "From 1-A to 4-F And All Points In Between", The New York Times, November 29, 1970. Accessed November 26, 2008.