Helen Levitt: ‘In the Street’

“Levitt’s pictures report no unusual happenings; most of them show the games of children, the errands and conversations of the middle-aged, and the observant waiting of the old. What is remarkable about the photographs is that these immemorially routine acts of life, practiced everywhere and always, are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humor, pathos, and surprise, and also that they are filled with the qualities of art, as though the street were a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators, and dancers.” From “Looking at Photographs” by John Szarkowski.

This Sunday was spent in the company of old favourites including Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas, and new including Boris Savelev, in highly recommended exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour. I keep returning to the work of Helen Levitt in my thoughts, and wanted to simply share here her short film ‘In the Street’, made in 1948 with novelist and critic James Agee and fellow photographer Janice Loeb.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyBEWD3M5r4&w=420&h=315]

Remembering Lucia Moholy

Artist, art critic, and photographic historian, Lucia Moholy contributed to the pioneering developments in photography which were achieved at the Bauhaus, was a leading portraitist in post-war London, and was highly innovative in the development of photography for scientific documentation. However her career perhaps remains lesser known than many of her contemporaries. Therefore it was a pleasure to recently contribute an essay on Moholy’s life and work for Photomonitor.

Michael Polanyi by Lucia Moholy, 1938 © estate of Lucia Moholy

Fred Daniels: Cinema Portraits

Pioneer of British film stills and portrait photography, Fred Daniels (1892-1959) will be celebrated in a new display which opens at the National Portrait Gallery on 28th September. The display will include his studies of film stars including Elizabeth Bergner, Leslie Howard, John Mills, David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Tilly Losch, James Mason, and Anna May Wong.

Born in 1892 in Churchover, Warwickshire, Daniels was educated at Bablake public school, Coventry. He excelled at painting, later moving to Paris in the early 1920s where he became friends with Scottish colourist J.D. Fergusson. Fergusson commissioned Daniels to photograph his wife, the acclaimed dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris. Daniels’s studies of Morris, taken at the Chateau de Deux Rives, Dinard, Brittany, and in the Foret D’Arc, Normandy, were collected in the 1925 publication Margaret Morris Dancing.

Plate XXX from Margaret Morris Dancing (1925): ‘Frieze Silhouette’

One of Daniel’s early important commissions as a photographer came in 1929, when he was recruited by director E.A. Dupont to take stills and publicity portraits for Piccadilly, starring Anna May Wong and Gilda Gray. In the same year, Daniels also photographed actress Joan Barry in connection with Dupont’s film Atlantic, a fictional drama based upon the story of the RMS Titanic. After these first experiences in film, Daniel’s wrote the essay Art in Film Production for magazine Windsor (October 1929), and the future direction of his career was certain.

After working on several Herbert Wilcox films including Sorrell and Son (1933) and Victoria the Great (1937) starring Anna Neagle, Daniels established his own studio at 17 Coventry Street, Piccadilly. In 1941, he met filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, photographing Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard, the stars of their wartime drama 49th Parallel. The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Story, and its success led to Powell and Pressburger establishing their own production company, The Archers.

NPG x88682; Laurence Olivier in ’49th Parallel’ by Fred Daniels. © estate of Fred Daniels / National Portrait Gallery, London

In the following decade, Daniels worked on many of The Archers key films, including A Canterbury Tale (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Black Narcissus (1947). His last major assignment for the company was in 1949, photographing David Niven at Elstree and Shepperton Studios on the set of The Elusive Pimpernel.

Daniels’s work for The Archers is the subject of a new publication, The Archers: Powell & Pressburger Portraits /Portrety Fred Daniels by Nigel Arthur and Ewa Reeves. Nigel Arthur was awarded a bursary by the Understanding British Portraits network in 2011, and he and Ms Reeves have collaborated with the National Portrait Gallery on this forthcoming display. They will also present a lecture at the Gallery on Daniels’s career and legacy on 18 October 2012.