March 6: Some regard the frame of the viewfinder as a stage, the moment of exposure the denouement of a drama, their photographs as a theatrical production.
Douglas Hannaford Jeffery was born on this date in 1917. Some thirty thousand theatre productions passed before his lens. Gerhard Vormwald who turned the split second into theatre, was also born this day in 1948, while Thérèse Le Prat (*1895) died on this date in 1966 in Paris. For her the human face was the site of drama.
After training in offset printing, graphics and painting, and before Gerhard Vormwald made his name in the 1970s staging advertising photographs inspired by surrealism, he was a theatre photographer 1969-1972 and 1978-1981 for the National Theatre in Mannheim, Germany. He admits to being inspired by Hilde Zehmann.
In the pre-digital era his images, that were clearly photographs, and that made what was physically impossible look real, were a revelation to which we have now become accustomed. From quite simple deceptions such as the image above, which is merely rotated 90º clockwise, or Uschi and Balloons which is presented upside-down, with jelly set in the wine glasses and wires as balloon strings, he produced ever more complex illusions.
Many employ the capacity of high-speed electronic flash to freeze movement, just as Phillipe Halsmann, then known for his ‘jump’ portraits, had done with Salvador Dali in 1948.
These days one encounters on Instagram images of figures apparently floating above beds with almost monotonous frequency, but Vormwald was a pioneer of the approach.
Guy Bourdin shook up the fashion scene in 1978 with images that were similarly surreal, but achieved with less artifice; for the Charles Jourdan ad below he merely uses depth of field to insert a real model into a polaroid test.
The seventies and eighties were also a period in which tobacco industry, beginning to be a little self-conscious about their poor press amongst the medical profession, tried to distract attention with quite sophisticated surrealist advertisements in the Sunday supplements and on billboards.
Often they were unconsciously damning; how does a tobacco addict identify with a cigarette packet as a bird in a cage or as a mouse-trap? Silk Cut was made popular by a surrealistic advertising campaign launched in 1983, in preparation for a ban on named tobacco advertising. Benson and Hedges beat them to it with a series by London photographer Brian Duffy.
Vormwald’s work however seems not to have had the same exposure in the English-speaking world, even though his work was published internationally in advertising campaigns on magazine covers and as photographic illustrations from 1983, when he moved with his family to Paris, opening a photographic studio at 52, rue Pernety, Montparnasse. His first commission was to photograph a couple in bed with a car.
In the nineties he broke away from the production of pseudo-worlds, making a series of staged portraits with the simplest of means, requiring the sitters to perform a surreal act.
In 1990, Vormwald had opened a studio in Couéche in Nouvelle-Aquitaine in southwestern France, turning his back on commercial work and, in addition to photographs, began to paint, draw, and make objects, video and texts, devoting himself more and more to his own ideas. Of influences, he cites “Anselm Keifer, Julian Schnabel, or Gerhard Richter…I must confess, I prefer to look at painting. In photography, I see too much how it is done. I am missing both the aura and the unexplainable.”
Of everyday kitchen utensils, waste, flowers and foodstuffs, he made assemblages, fantastic arrangements in which he continues the crazy dynamic and frenetic pace of his populated imagery in lavish stagings realised as a criticism of the excesses of the French gourmet life. More can be viewed on his website.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Vormwald began to use digital imaging, and by 1999 he had switched to art education, becoming professor of photography and interdisciplinary imaging at the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf. In 2011 he was appointed to the German Academy of Photography. On the night of March 9, 2016, Vormwald died in his Paris studio for unexplained reasons.
In his mid-twenties Douglas H. Jeffery took up photography in the 1940s with a second-hand plate camera and started covering productions at the Richmond Park open-air theatre for a local paper. A wedding photographer, he once did five weddings in one day by processing his film and make contact prints for the wedding guests in an old, black Rolls-Royce ambulance.
He applied the same fanatic energy to making theatre pictures in the 1950s; a known eccentric, and a hard man to refuse, he virtually insisted on taking pictures of productions for publicity whether wanted or not. Theatre directors soon got the idea when in the 1960s he began supplying theatre photographs to newspapers on a daily basis; living in Shoe Lane, near the then Daily Express building on Fleet Street he gave them great service. Theatre historians credit him with the invention of the ‘photo call’ which is now de rigeur for every production. He provided the Guardian newspaper with its theatre photos for over thirty years.
Jeffery’s early images were taken right on stage rather than from the stalls, in intimate contact with the actors who had to adjust their performance to the proximity of the camera, but still appear to be playing to a full house, mindful of how they would appear in a newspaper or Sunday supplement.
His images were always sharply focussed and with the blacks as solid as any set designer might desire. These two shots from Catch my Soul exemplify his ability to outwit his rivals whom he catches at work from his eyrie up on the bridge or catwalk amongst the lighting tracks. Most are armed with Metz or Braun flash units to kill any ambient stage light. He’s there to catch Desdemona’s face at the moment she is strangled…everyone else is getting the top of her head. His shot, made with a much longer lens, in low light without flash, on film, is perfectly sharp, front to back. He’s an extraordinary technician.
By all accounts an awkward person. He was eventually sidelined for people people less difficult and because he would not shift to digital imaging, though he was still working in 2008, at 90 years old! He died in 2009.
The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, has recently acquired the collection of Douglas H Jeffery’s images; one of the most comprehensive libraries of theatre photography in Britain, comprising more than 100,000 images from around 30,000 productions – from The Merchant of Venice (Richmond Shakespeare Society, 1951) to Abigail’s Party (Hampstead Theatre, 1977) and the musical Lord of the Rings (2008) with many previously unpublished images.
Jeffrey never married, rarely spent his money, and never took a holiday; his devotion was praised by many theatre directors, including Richard Eyre:
I knew him only through the ritualised production photocalls in the theatre and dress rehearsals in the opera. Over the years I’d come to welcome his appearance on every one of these awkward occasions, where perhaps 20 or so photographers are vying for the best picture. He was always certain of what he wanted and always managed to come out with a photograph that did justice to the show and at the same time caught the eye in a newspaper. He was a wry, amiable man and a good photographer.
It was in 1947, out of a fascination with nuances of feelings and emotions she began to portray actors, producing two publications in 1950 and 1952. They are not stage photographs but studio close-ups; three-quarter length against a black background and concentrating on the expression of each player. Essentially these are portraits, not of the actor, nor even of the part they play, but of a moment of theatre as they act out a few lines, as in the portrait above of Jean-Louis Barrault, in the expression of the Hamlet soliliquoy “To be or not to be”.
It is a series reminiscent of Alexej von Jawlensky’s Abstract Heads of the 1920s, all of which adhere to the format of an abbreviated, stylised face in differing colour combinations and variously titled as Sunbeam, Bright Sound, Karma, Sun-Colour-Life and so on.
Thérèse Le Prat died in 1966, leaving behind a manuscript that her husband published the same year, En Votre Gravité, Visages, and a work entitled Femmes et Fleurs, which is never published. Her surviving images are available for viewing on the website of La Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine (MAP)