On Photography - Florence Henri

Article Detail

Thursday 4 December 2008
Ron Brownson

The acquisition of modernist photographic portraits has never been a strategic focus for our international collection. Nevertheless, the Gallery acquired from a Sothebys auction during 1979 sale a remarkable self portrait photograph by Florence Henri. Although she was born in New York in 1893, Henri trained at the Bauhaus at Dessau as a Swiss citizen. She worked under the direct tuition of her teachers Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. As an artist, Moholy- Nagy was fascinated with still life, distorted perspectives and the employment of multiple reflections. Such approaches to representation encouraged her to experiment with the medium of photography, which later worked set up her freelance career in Paris (1929 to 1963) as a successful portrait, fashion and advertising photographer.

Mirrors, glass and chromium-plated balls surfaced in her photographs during 1928. All of these images started out as pre-visioned still lives. Using her recently purchased Leica I, she prepared miniature tableaux in her studio for the sole purpose of a photographic record. These works contrast scale with complex reflections.

Henri’s Self Portrait of 1928 is rarely found in a period vintage print. The version that the Gallery acquired was printed later, which is obvious from the type of photographic paper she has used that certainly post-dates World War II. This may be the brilliant Agfa Brovira paper, which became available in France after 1946. This particular print has sustained chemical blemishes from what appear to be the artist’s own fingerprints which she has attempted to cover with a stippled spotting technique.

This famous Self Portrait has a stunning composition. The contrast of vertical and horizontal planes, the oddly sized mirror, the playful metallic reflections and the artist’s own tight pose - imitating a sculptural bust’s format - are all controlled by a tense and surprising design.

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Image credits (top to bottom):

Florence Henri (1893-1982) Switzerland
Self Portrait 1928 (printed later)
Gelatin silver print
279 x 190mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1979

Detail: Self Portrait 1928