Published on August 9th, 2015 | by Pascal Ordonneau0
Florence Henri : the invention of modern images
Florence Henri (New York, 1893-Compiègne 1982), was a protean artist, first known for her painting, before finding her niche in the field of avant-garde photography from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. After living in Silesia, Munich, Vienna, Rome and most importantly Berlin, she settled permanently in Paris in the mid-1920s, where she devoted herself fully to photography. This medium allowed her to experiment with new relationships to space, including the introduction of mirrors and other objects in her compositions.
Curious character, that Florence Henri. She was torn between several cultures: the German, the American, the French, and the English! Being torn herself, might she have felt the need to tear photographs into pieces? Did she experience so many artistic passions, as a painter, musician, photographer… that she could not satisfy herself with limited ambitions in the art of photography, which was still perceived as the junior servant of the major arts (painting, sculpture) or as a mere illustration technique for books dedicated to the education of the masses and the educated public?
It is the unsolved mystery of artistic creation, to search for the genealogy of invention, sources of inspiration, intimate secrets. Not bricks of life, but bricks of art, those which are supposed to be simultaneously the building, the support of the building, its facade and its internal structure.
As for inspiration sources, we have little to go on, regarding her « beginnings » and thoughts from her early childhood or about hopes for the eternal future, as, when we look very closely at her work, Florence Henri, photographer, invented from scratch many of the things she produced, techniques she used, framing and themes that unfold in her photos. She was the first artist, one of the first in any case, to project photography in the twentieth century and following times. Should you try to retrieve references, as it is usual to do when it comes to artistic creation, you’d better look for the music of her time between French traditions and Austro-Hungarian revolutions.
The exhibition proposed by the Jeu de Paume is particularly interesting in that it avoids the usual frills that too often accompany known photographers and/or these photographers who cleverly make themselves known. It starts with Florence Henri beginnings, made of photos that are not very exciting, where images are basic and somehow banal. From them nevertheless emanates a sense of novelty, research, work on what the photo must be, as opposed to evidence of pictorialism. From the beginnings of Florence Henri’s work, the central question is regarding the meaning of the photographic subject. The mirrors used in her photographic compositions show early on that the image of the photographer has more to do with illusionist ruptures reflected by mirrors posed in staggered rows, resulting in abime images, than with the vast world offered to Pictorialist landscapes and figures as if they were old-fashioned artists painting on the motive. The “mirror” technique will be for Florence Henri a permanent reference for the construction of her images and, at the same time, the paradigm of the design of the photographic field, as well as that of alignment and positioning of the subject. She would constantly go back to this reference and build, through her self-portraits, a split image in complete contradiction with the real framework in which she was standing.
At this stage of our encounter with the artist we must keep in mind that these “inventions” took place at a time when the art of photography was at a crossroads. Although Florence Henri never gave up photography in the traditional sense of portraying people and landscapes, she extended the scope of photographic image to fields or concerns that were new in her time and that few photographers had tried.
In this sense, she is innovative: a good part of modern photography of her time had been breaking the traditional framing and the use of light than with the subject of the photo. Photography has long held the idea that the pictorialist representation is not questionable. This idea had some common sources with this one about impressionnists: some people thought (and still think) that they did not abolish landscape representation but, instead, renewed it. Though, modern photos during the interwar period changed the way of seeing things and people, this did not change things and people into plain photography objects and tools, pure materials to be used as pieces in the creation of an image. As for Florence Henri, she manipulated photos’ construction and design to draw effects similar to those that Cubists eventually obtained from painting.
So she sought every means to bring out her pictures despite everything, despite the strong presence of topics or perspectives: she used collages or worked her shots to transpose the art of collage into the art of photography. She developed layering techniques to give scale or a different meaning to the images she snatched from their natural environment. She invented a style of photography obsessed with framing, composition, research on the presence and anti-presence, on appearance and confusion.
Thus Florence Henri’s landscape representations are always but excuses: they are there, Breton or Roman, they are not in the photo as such but rather as part of an image, as a background to it, even just as decoration. What is photographed is a composition where the landscape is required as if it were an actor, sometimes secondary, since ropes, windows, and other objects are the real image foreground; they are showing the context of the photo and designing the first image plane which gives the image its orientation and structuration. Thus her photo subject moves toward non-subject, abstraction and pure image structuration; furthermore, it is also in this way that she managed to give a particular momentum to advertising photos, providing them with objective compositions resulting from the technical advances she had made in the field of abstract photography.
This is also how her portraits present a strong and original density: framing plays a key role as does her taste for strong, sometimes aggressive contrasts of light and shadow, black and white. And as for framing? She does not hesitate to “mess up” a photo! It must be understood in the sense that if the faces are not impeccably included as part of the picture, and have gone beyond its frame as if the picture had been taken from too close, it is but to create the impression that the artist is searching for. The figure is not centered the way it should be done when taking a serious portrait. To Florence Henri, a portrait, and a landscape as well, are photography components; they are but materials, they are not the photograph itself.
Florence Henri had created a photography studio in Paris that was said to rival Man Ray’s studio. She also taught photography. Some of her students had become outstanding figures of photo art, such as Gisèle Freund, Lisette Model. She struck her contemporaries with her daring: the Jeu de Paume exhibition presents some quotations and comments. Amongst them, we read this one from László Moholy-Nagy that illustrates very clearly the position of Florence Henri: “With photographs by Florence Henri, the practice of photography was entering a new phase of an entirely different magnitude than it should have been possible to imagine up until now…”