Thomas Hoepker has a cold pragmatism to how he sees his work. Take for example, when asked what makes a typical Hoepker photo he replied, "Well, I am still a street photographer as I have always been. I see what happens around me and then I photograph it.” Or after 60 years of producing some of the most striking photos of everything from Mohammed Ali to September 11th, he simply states, “I am not an artist. I am an image maker.” Perhaps it’s his post-war German upbringing, or maybe it’s simply his dedication to being a photojournalist above all else.

Thomas Hoepker 1983 | Adsum
A man walks on Fifth Aveneue with a homemade speed bike.

Like his “guiding star”, Robert Frank, this attitude allowed him a slightly detached viewpoint. It’s a remove that gives his photos a heightened sense of honesty and truth to them. A straightforwardness that is probably best exemplified by a photo so off-putting that Hoepker and Magnum Photos self-censored it for four years. The photo, shot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shows an almost idyllic scene in the foreground. Flowers, cypress trees, and a group of young people bathing in a movie-set sunshine next to the east river on a late summer day. It's the unsettling black cloud emanating from the Twin Towers in the background that caused Hoepker, while reviewing photos from that day, to deem it too ambiguous and confusing for the time and ultimately deciding that publishing it might distort the reality as he/we had felt it.

9/11 Thomas Hoepker | Adsum
Hoepker's most controversial photo was self censored for four years.

Thankfully, after stumbling on it 4 years later, it was that very ambiguousness and surreality that made him pull it out again. As Frank Rich would remark in The New York Times “the photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come… This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.” That was in 2006 and the sentiment remains as applicable today as it did then.

East Harlem Residents sit in front of a vacant lot.

He shot all over the world but we’re most drawn to his photos of New York City, where he captured daily life in the city with all its quirks and nuances. It’s the deadening boredom of waiting in overheating fat suits on a film shoot on Park Avenue, the surreality of newly anointed “it” artists & freaks mixing with generational wealth at a night club, it’s the unbridled joy of cracking open a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, it’s young love & lust in a littered parking lot.

It’s all of these things, and that is because Hoepker knew New York City, like all of life, is what you make it. Rather than offer a prescription of how he thinks you should live yours, his photos make you stop and think; often making you ask more questions than they answer. Isn’t that what a great artist does? Sorry... “image maker”.