The National Portrait Gallery’s new photographic show ‘Hoppé Portraits, Society, Studio & Street’ brings in to the public gaze a selection of portrait work from the once highly renowned photographer E.O.Hoppé.
This exhibition constitutes the first major show of his works in 30 years, and seeks to raise this prolific figure out of obscurity and secure his rightful place as one of the pioneering greats in the canon of photographic history. A thoughtful juxtaposition of photographs which document the high and the low of society at the first half of the twentieth century, this collection presents a remarkable snapshot of a spectrum of people, both socially and ethnically diverse, who occupied this historical moment. Portraying a mixture of the momentous, fortuitous and accidental, Hoppé’s images illustrate how the photographer’s lens can operate at the cusp of penetrating naturalism and subjective creativity, whilst consistently capturing something of the personality of the subject, endowing them with an integrity and dignity which is all their own. During the period between 1907 – 1939 Hoppé gained international acclaim for his portrait studies of eminent figures from the worlds of the arts, literature and politics.
His illustrious portfolio of international sitters, ranging from intellectuals such as Albert Einstein and Ezra Pound to political figures like Mussolini and even the British Royal Family, attests to his popularity which matches yet pre-dates the likes of celebrity photographers Richard Avendon and Iving Penn in the late twentieth century. His intimate portrayals of creative personalities such as the young Margot Fonteyn, and Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, are strangely prescient in their ability to convey some sensibility of their later fate. The almost unknown sixteen year old Fonteyn displays a precocious confidence which presages her later successes, while Nijinsky, caught spontaneously a moment after leaving the stage reveals an elegant vulnerability just a few years before his career was effectively ended due to schizophrenia.
Each portrait is uniquely compelling and sensitive. Despite maintaining a strikingly modernist approach, Hoppé never succumbs to an objectivising or critical standpoint, rather he allows his subjects to project themselves and uses his aesthetic to compliment rather than construct. Hoppé’s photojournalistic studies of everyday British people during the interwar period, (which directly anticipate the traditions of documentary photography exhibited by the likes of Walker Evans 1903-1975) convey a gentle, even playful curiosity impressed with a compassionate sense of a common humanity. Photographs of the peopled street, often taken by the means of a hidden camera, provide fascinating glimpses into its historical context. Huddled figures sleeping on the pavement illustrate the tangible effects of the Great Depression, while documentary images of the East End display a surprising cultural diversity.
Viewing these vintage photographs of our own society eighty years on, one can not help but be struck by the weight of history and the resounding poignancy implicit within the images. Going about their daily lives, these people could not have anticipated the approaching turbulence of international politics and the ways in which life as they knew it would undoubtedly change. Through the faces and personalities of his subjects, Hoppé’s images provide a fascinating insight into this moment in history, whilst also acting as a sobering reminder of the ephemeral nature of the historical present encapsulated within the momentary snap of the photograph.
Written By Hannah Foster