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In the footsteps of Florence Henri (1893-1982)

I see myself as a relative newcomer to ‘serious photography’ but I have been struck by two features. Viewing the contemporary scene I notice that most of the ‘creative photography’ workshops that I have attended have overwhelmingly been led and attended by women. And extending my gaze historically it is clear that many other spaces and places where photography and photographic equipment are discussed, displayed, demonstrated and sold are dominated by men. Why is this?


During a recent talk by Eileen Rafferty on the history of Abstract Expressionist photography, I noticed that she drew mainly on the work of male photographers, such as Steiglitz, Strand and Man Ray and I suddenly wondered ‘what about the women’? Only Hannah Hoch and Imogen Cunningham were commented upon. So I then listened to the renowned Doug Chinnery’s blog on the history of Photographic Expressionism from 1905 on to find out more, and he only mentioned one woman, Gertrude Kasebier, while crediting 15 male photographers. I was now intrigued. Where was the work of female image creators over the last century?


Further investigation revealed that in the significant 1960 exhibition The Sense of Abstraction in MOMA in New York, Lotte Jacobi was the only female included. Nearly 60 years on, in the 2018 Shape of Art: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art exhibition, 18 women had their work displayed, but these were heavily outnumbered by the 114 men exhibitors. I found other recent examples, such the Winter Festival of Abstract painters in Santa Fe where Sharon Booma and Emily Mason were outnumbered by six male artists. Were men as dominant as it seemed as ground-breakers and practitioners? Were women simply underrepresented? Or even excluded?


This has led me to do some research to give some space to these female pioneers. And I have started with the fascinating life and work of Florence Henri, intrigued by her innovative use of reflections and light.

Self Portrait by Florence Henri 1938 (Image sourced from ICP )



Born in the USA in 1893, Florence's mother died when she was just two years old, and she subsequently spent her childhood in Germany, France and England, either with relatives or at boarding school. Her father travelled a lot with his work as a director of an oil company. He died in 1907, when she was fourteen, but left her with a small income. This economic independence allowed her to pursue an artistic career. In her teens, Florence had become a very competent piano player and she moved to Berlin in 1912 to study music. During the first world war she played the accompaniments to silent films to support herself! But she came to believe that she would never be as good as other virtuoso pianists in her circle, so she turned her gaze to painting instead. As my own fiercest critic, it is fascinating to learn that she was very self-critical all her life.


In early 1920s Berlin, Florence mixed with the emerging avante-garde community and took classes at the Bauhaus led by Kandinsky and Klee, pioneers of abstract art, before settling in Paris and studying under the Cubists Lhote and Leger, whom Florence credits with having the most influence on her work. Her paintings and collages become more abstract and incorporated Constructivist geometric forms.


It was in 1927 that Florence turned her attention to photography, enrolling again at the Bauhaus. One of the key influencers there was the Hungarian Constructivist artist and New Vision photographer Moholy-Nagy, who wrote the key text Maleri, Fotografie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film) (1925) that highlighted the connections between modern art and photography but I was surprised to learn that it was his wife, Lucia Moholy, who in teaching photographic techniques, stimulated considerable experimentation and creativity among the Bauhaus students, using techniques such as photomontages, collages and photograms; she became great friends with Florence. Many male graduates of the school are well-known, such as Herbert Bayer but further research reveals that there were many successful female graduates too, listed here by Paula Vellet, among them Florence herself.


It is clear to me that being in this pan-European artistic social circle, in the years following the Great War, a time of radical change, shaped Florence's emerging photography. Building on her expertise in painting, she played around taking portraits and self-portraits with mirrors, as well as compositions with everyday objects. After only 2 years of studying photography, Florence opened up her own studio in Paris, focusing on portraiture and then advertising, and became as well-known as Man Ray. Her images were included in seminal international exhibitions, such as Fotografie der Gegenwart (Contemporary Photography, 1929), Film Und Foto (Film and Photo, 1929) and Das Lichtbild (The Photograph, 1931) and featured in leading photography journals. Living in France throughout the second world war considerably restricted Florence's opportunity for photography, because of censorship and lack of materials, and she turned back to painting. Thus the bulk of her output was produced in a span of fifteen years.


It is interesting to speculate on her lifestyle choices and how they opened up possibilities for her as a professional female photographer. Diana Du Pont in her book on Henri writes:


Femininity signified the bearing and rearing of children and the moral duty to protect and civilize society through fulfilling maternal responsibilities. Expected to dedicate themselves to domesticity, women of the nineteenth century who dared to live otherwise endured a social bias....The particulars of Henri's life do not conform to the conventional bourgeois mores that reinforced those notions of womanhood into the twentieth century. Her lack of a traditional home life, her cosmopolitan upbringing, her marriage of convenience and her liberal attitudes towards sexuality, challenge the domestic ideal. Henri chose to live her life as an artist, and, in building her identity, she turned to both the self-portrait and the mirror". (Du Pont, 1990, cited in Kismaric, 2015, p182)


Opportunity, being in the right place at the right time, also made a difference for Florence, something which is also illustrated well by the career of another influential female photographer, Gertrud Arndt. The wife of one of the teachers at the Bauhaus, she became bored and took up photography, and is now seen as one of the pioneers of self-portraiture!


In the 1920s and 30s, Florence was clearly renowned and respected for her photography, and also influenced other female photographers, such as Lisette Model and Ilse Bing. And yet Carole Naggar, writing about Florence in 2015, called her 'one of photography's unsung influencers'. I wonder why this happened, when the names of her male contemporaries are still well-remembered? In a series designed to showcase the contributions made by female photographers, the Musee du Jeu de Paume, Paris, presented an exhibition Florence Henri: Mirror of the Avant Gardes in 2015, which brought together 130 of Henri's images in a well-deserved celebration of her photography, and some late recognition for her originality.


This leads me to unpick what it is that makes Florence's work so inspiring to me, nearly 100 years later? Maybe that is one element already - that her work is still so respected. But also because of the resonances for me. Florence subverted conventional photography, she played around with notions of identity, she captured vulnerabilities with her portraiture. The most famous example is this self portrait, with two silver balls:




I also appreciate her dedication to the 'work', the way that she focussed on a topic again and again, much like Cezanne with his apples. I find her exploration of perspective and lines through the use of mirrors in portraits and still life compositions to isolate, frame, double or triple the subject, leading the viewer to wonder what is reality and what is reflection, particularly interesting and stimulating.

Still-Life Composition, Florence Henri, 1929

She was also a pioneer in photo-montage and multiple exposures, techniques that I am currently struggling to master despite (or maybe because of?) the complexities of in-camera multiple exposure and the tricks of photoshop.


Looking through the images in the book of the 2015 Paris exhibition, I am struck by the variety and yet the repetitions in her images. In the still lifes and portraits, where Florence has direct control of the composition, there are circles and orbs, lines and rectangles, sharp angles, reflections and shadows. And then when she is out of the studio, on the streets, she continues to seek these elements out. In her street photography, she uses the shop windows as the mirrors, dividing what is inside and outside, with creative reflections. Her industrial architecture images also centre on grids, lines and circles. Thus there are continuous threads of interest to follow through her body of work.


“What I want above all,” Florence Henri said near the end of her long life, “is to compose the photograph as I do with painting. Volumes, lines, shadows and light have to obey my will and say what I want them to say. This happens under the strict control of composition, since I do not pretend to explain the world nor to explain my thoughts.”

My next step is to draw on Florence's work, the concepts and approaches she used, as a stimulus for my own photographic experimentation.



References:

Diana C. Du Pont, Florence Henri: Artist- Photographer of the Avante-Garde (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1990

Kismaric, S. (2015) 'Florence Henri: The Photographer's Persona' in Florence Henri: Mirror of the Avante-Garde. Aperture: Jeu de Paume, Paris

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