Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio & Street

Monash Gallery of Art 9 June 2012 to 29 July 2012

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio & Street is a thoughtfully executed tribute to a
photographer whose historic impact has only recently been revealed. A precursor to
Walker Evans and Max Dupain, and well-known to the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, E.O Hoppé
(British, German-born, 1878-1972) has been described as "The most famous photographer in the world in the 1920s". However, through a series of filing and archiving decisions his photographs have been largely overlooked.

As an early proponent of photojournalism, Hoppé's street portraits show people from all
walks of life. A woman with a beautiful back is tattooed by a man with a moustache. A
zookeeper rests his hand on the nose of a hippo called Joan. Women in Madame
Tussauds ?nish wax faces. A man in uniform eats soup in a London soup bar, his spoon
caught in his lips, his eyes focused on something in his periphery. Some images have
elements of the uncanny but remain strangely endearing, leaving the viewer with a sense
of empathetic nostalgia.

Today, we have access to any number of 'street photographs’, taken for a variety of
purposes. CCTV keeps tabs on street corners, while portable cameras allow the most
mundane moments to be documented. In Hoppé’s images, we see the seeds of other
photographers who have since developed the notion of street photography such as Luc
Delahaye’s ‘stolen’ images of people on the Paris Metro, Bill Cunningham’s photographs of New York’s street fashion or Bill Henson’s portraits of unsuspecting, and unidenti?ed, ?gures within a crowd.

Such un-staged depictions question the hypothetical social contract between the
photographer and the photographed. This is particularly so because Hoppé, in his desire
to make portraits not dictated to by the presence of photographic equipment, went as far
as to use a hidden camera to catch his subjects at their most natural and honest.

With his ?xed-focus Kodak Browning wrapped in a brown paper bag, he managed to
capture the un-choreographed, quotidian moments of ordinary people. And while this
clandestine practice begs analogy with today’s paparazzi, the intention and results dispel
any comparison. No scandal is derived from Hoppé’s images, rather, they serve to
document the ?eeting moments that would be lost if a camera were present.

Even within his studio, Hoppé played down the act of making a photograph, aiming
instead to illicit the character of his sitter. He used long shutter cables, which he released
as unobtrusively as possible while in conversation with his subject—a far cry from the
practice of a portrait photographer disappearing behind a dark cloak to take his image!

Hoppé’s studio portraits feature an illustrious and varied list of celebrities from the early
20th Century. An image of Benito Mussolini sits alongside Big Chief White Horse Eagle of
the Osage Tribe, Oklahoma. Albert Einstein shares a wall with Rudyard Kipling and
Somerset Maugham.

An irrepressible image of Ezra Pound depicts the poet from a close, low angle. His head is
tilted back. His hooded eyes and parted lips make him appear at once on the brink of
action, and also languidly composed. This 1918 portrait of Pound somehow encompasses
both soft-edged romanticism, and hard-edged modernism, capturing Hoppé’s ability to
straddle photographic and artistic genres.

The exhibition was heavily wall labelled. Its wall texts were lengthy but warranted. On the
Sunday afternoon that I was there, a steady stream of visitors spent some time in front of
each image, taking in descriptions of famous sitters, and pondering the resulting portraits.
They commented to each other about various identities, achievements, and appearances.
We all wanted to ?nd something familiar in the images ¬¬- to recognise someone, or to feel a
connection with some element of the street. This search was sated by Hoppé’s ability to
treat subjects of celebrity and anonymity with equal empathy and appreciation, and his
unprejudiced eye makes his photographs both compelling and timeless.

Pippa Milne