Tag Archives: Herb Ritts

Snap – Hungary’s genius, Eyewitness at the RA

18 Jul

Robert Capa famously said ‘It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian’.  Even though most of Hungary’s famous photographers decided to leave their home country and make their names in Germany, France and the US, having visited this exhibition, I see his point.

Centring around five major photographers – Robert Capa,  Brassaï, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi -this exhibition presents a chronological journey of Hungary’s conflicted history (all Jewish-born these men were forced to change their names due to the frequent anti-Semitism they encountered), looking at the lives of these artists and revealing their achievements and genius.  With around 200 photographs, by over 50 photographers, ranging in date from 1914-1989, I think everyone was ready to expect a mess but the Royal Academy has produced a beautiful show with striking, provocative images arranged in a coherent and concise manner.

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.

In many ways, these five photographers gained recognition as a result of leaving Hungary.  Yet, their technique and style was much influenced by the photographic traditions of their homeland.  It was in Budapest, for example, that some of the first photography stories were printed in the 1920s.  Many others, such as Károly Escher, Rudolf Balogh and Jószef Pécsi, did remain in Hungary and the exhibition includes a good spectrum of such work.

László Fejes, Wedding, Budapest, 1965. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

I think this exhibition was a big gamble.  Although Hungarian photography is getting more popular, I wouldn’t have thought it is popular enough for an RA summer show.  Maybe they have enough people already coming through the doors that they’re happy to take the risk or maybe they just felt these amazing artists deserved some more attention.  Whichever you believe, their gamble has paid off – when I was there, it was packed.

As you know, I’m normally the first to criticise grey walls but here they work.  The black and white photographs have a serene and calming quality.  There’s no problem with reflections.  The exhibition is uniform and well-conceived.  My one small niggle was that queues built up while people stuck in the dead-end sections of the exhibition were looking into the cabinets.  Oh, one other thing…  The wall labels now include the catalogue numbers which I thought slightly weird.  If you see people walking around catalogue in hand, this is why.

The personalities of the photographers are evident in their works.  Kertész, for example, was shy and never felt fully comfortable outside Hungary, while Brassaï was a confident socialite who had spent four years working in Berlin before moving to Paris in 1924.  His new home became the focus of his work and the centre of his life.  Fascinated by the cultures and sub-cultures of the city, his works delve into Paris at night and the restless wandering souls who occupied the city.   Bijou of Montparnasse stares out at the viewer. Expensively attired and heavily made-up, her face reveals the tire and strain of years of work.

Brassaï, Bijou of Montparnasse, 1932.  Image via http://thingsbecomethings.blogspot.com.

Munkácsi’s works inspired many American fashion photographers, including Herb Ritts.  Perhaps the most accomplished photojournalist here, he began working in the medium aged only 18.

His work Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika is carefree and inspiring, the perfect social commentary of a young family playing on the beach.   Their raw nakedness against the white foam is poignant and striking.  The sharpness of the image, created by use of a high shutter speed, results in an image filled with dynamism and vitality.  Henri Cartier Bresson said “it is only that one photograph which influenced me.”

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

The exhibition also includes Munkácsi’s photograph of the Nazi superstar Leni Riefenstahl (I won’t go into Riefenstahl’s life story and her claims for that is not what is relevant here).  Wearing hotpants and a vest, her dark hair, chiseled features and smooth skin appear more pronounced by the snow.  This photo appeared on the front cover of Time in 1936 to mark the Fourth Winter Olympics that Hitler had inaugurated earlier that month.  Munkácsi was fascinated by bodies in movement; innovative for his time, he was making history with every shot he captured.

Martin Munkácsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931.  Image www.artvalue.com.

I studied Kertész at school and his works still have a special resonance for me.  With little formal training, Kertész began taking photographs of rural scenes and everyday moments in Budapest.  He was then known for his trench photography while he served from 1914-15.  A shy character, his work expresses an overriding interest in the daily routines of people.

Strict regulations were imposed on Hungarian photography in the latter half of the 20th century.  No Hungarian photographs of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were allowed to be published and photography began to lose some of its earlier vigour as the political climate trampled freedom of artistic expression once again.  Experimentation continued on the fringes and during the 1980s the art form began to re-emerge and flourish.  The Hungarian contribution to photography is still felt today and, as this exhibition shows, many modern-day artists and photo-journalists alike are indebted to these figures.

Károly Escher, Bank Manager at the Baths, 1938.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

These photographs present the glamour, truth and terrifying realities of the time.  The strength of this material, and the incredible range of photographic media here, has influenced generations of photographers and much of what we see in newspapers, magazines and art galleries can be referenced to these works.

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century is in the Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy until 2nd October 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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Double Exposure: National Portrait Gallery and Hamiltons

7 Jul

Glamour of the Gods at the National Portrait Gallery is a celebration of Hollywood stars from 1920-1960.  Over 70 vintage photographs are on display here, many of which have never been shown before, from the amazing archives of the John Kobal Foundation.

The studios used these photographs to transform their actors and actresses into style icons and heartthrobs.  These iconic images helped to shape incredible personalities, acting as powerful ‘posters’ to publicise new films and draw in audiences.  Not only is the range of stars overwhelming (James Dean, Joan Collins, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others) but the range of photographers is also impressive including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise.

Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) by John Engstead. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition records decades of film history.  John Kobal began collecting film photographs in the 1950s. Over time, his passion burgeoned and he tracked down many of the photographers behind the portraits, arranging exhibitions, publishing books, and seeking to give them the recognition they deserved.  Luckily for us, Kobal was an obsessive, realising the importance of these artists when no one else did and bringing them to the forefront, together with the stars they were photographing.

Whereas today we like our ‘celebs’ to be real people, the Hollywood film studios of this era chose to depict the actors as glamorous, mysterious and inaccessible.  With no paparazzi, these were the photographs seen and admired by the fans.   Appallingly, to enable the photographs to be reproduced as widely as possible, they were stamped ‘copyright free’ meaning many of these important photographers remained uncredited for their timeless works.

Rita Hayworth (1939) by Gene Kornman. Own photograph. 

I know I always commend or criticise slightly strange things – here, I have heaps of praise for the wall labels; they are brilliantly concise with information about both the works and the stars who appear in them.  They are informative and interesting – just right.  It was fascinating to be able to read the real names of these Hollywood icons – Joan Crawford, for example, was born Lucille Fay Le Sueur.

The exhibition is two-tone with walls of light cyan and deep purple – a bold and unusual choice.  Whilst the cyan walls bring out the tonal qualities of the monochrome photos, the purple doesn’t work as well.  These sections are a confusing mass of colour – purple walls with an injection of black (as described by the curator), black wall labels and brown flecked frames.

Own photograph.

There’s no denying that these works are beautiful but, in a way, there are slightly too many here.  The reflections in the glass from the opposite wall are awful and it would be better without these distractions.  A bulk order of non-reflective glass would have been useful.

Alfred Hitchcock with MGM lion (1958) by Clarence Sinclair Bull. Own photograph.

The gorgeous James Dean photo near the entrance/exit is spoiled by the reflection of Rock Hudson vying for your attention.

Own photograph.

It’s a very easy exhibition to walk around – look at the gorgeous photos and admire the beauty of the stars who appear in them.

The works themselves are exciting but the exhibition itself isn’t, other than for bringing these great works together.  Maybe that’s enough though and maybe it doesn’t need to do anything more than this.

I struggled across Trafalgar Square, where people were camping in their thousands to see today’s world premiere of the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, to the National Gallery.   Ever since I was taken on my first-ever school trip, aged 3, I can’t go past without popping in to visit my favourite paintings.  As I continued across the square towards Yinka’s Fourth Plinth, I came across the National’s incredible living wall.  Over 8,000 plants have been used to recreate Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses mimicking the strong bands of colour in the painting.  It’s gorgeous and such a great idea.  This is the sort of innovative thinking that we should see more of.

Own photograph.

Although I had planned to go to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with time being tight, I decided to have a photography day instead and tottered over to Hamiltons for their Herb Ritts’ exhibition.  The gallery is dangerously close to a certain shop that sells certain special shoes with red soles but I managed to resist walking down Mount Street for a peek.

As well as working for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Ritts created hugely successful advertising campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Chanel and Gap.  Many of these photographs, coming directly from Ritts’ private archive, have never been exhibited before.  They are images that Ritts particularly liked and saved for his own personal collection.

Own photograph.

This is a beautiful exhibition with clean-cut, striking works displayed in a crisp uniform fashion.  When I came home and looked back at my notes, I saw I had written an endless list of superlatives.  What else can you say about them but wow?  Aesthetically pleasing with perfectly executed compositions, these are a photographic delight.

Own photograph.

Also included are Ritts’ more well-known works such as Fred with Tires ­– this is the biggest ‘wow’ of them all.  It’s now very well-known and very gorgeous.  Girls, go and swoon to your hearts’ content.

Herb Ritts, Fred with Tires II, Hollywood, 1984. Own photograph.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd October 2011, www.npg.org.uk.

The National Gallery’s Living Wall can be seen in Trafalgar Square until the end of October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Herb Ritts is at Hamiltons Gallery until 12th August 2011, www.hamiltonsgallery.com.

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