An Iconic Photographer of the Twentieth Century
George Hoyningen-Huene (1900–1968) is acknowledged as an iconic pioneer in the genre of fashion photography. His elegant pared down style has had a dramatic impact on subsequent photographers around the world and his work continues to have relevance today, as an artist who created some of the most striking photographic portraits and compositions of the early twentieth century.
Huene was born in St. Petersburg. His father was a Baltic aristocrat, chief equerry to Tsar Nicolas II. His American mother was the daughter of the US Ambassador to Russia. His early life in the Tsar’s Court was one of great opulence, privilege, political intrigue and high drama. This was a time of lavish banquets and society balls, where fashionably dressed men in military uniforms and women in flowing gowns, including his mother and sisters, glided from one stunning salon to another. Huene absorbed and was inspired by the beauty and sophistication of the pre-revolutionary period, influences that would eventually shape his personal style and his work. His schooling was interrupted by the outbreak of WW1 when Europe entered a period of great political upheaval.
In Russia, in an attempt to save the monarchy, close friends of his family were involved in a conspiracy to murder Rasputin. George escaped with his mother and travelled through Finland to Sweden and then onto Norway, crossing the sea over to England. Everything the family owned in Russia was lost. In 1919 he enlisted in the British army and played a part in a failed British counter-revolution plot. The following year, he moved to Paris.
In Paris, he became part of the inner circle of the renowned surrealist photographer Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), with whom he collaborated in 1924 in creating a portfolio of fashion photographs. Paris at this time was a hive of artistic expression – great writers, innovators and artists who were all actively pollinating new ways of expressing their ideas. Huene’s circle included Salvador Dalí, Lee Miller and Coco Chanel, as well as Picasso and the surrealists Paul Éluard and Jean Cocteau. Huene began to make a name for himself as a well-respected fashion illustrator. His art teacher was the French cubist painter André Lhote.
Huene’s unique, innovative and artistic vision made him a leader in early fashion photography. He was one of the first to capture the style of the haute couture fashion houses of Paris, including Chanel and Balenciaga and the jeweler Cartier, as is witnessed by the many pictures he produced for the world’s leading fashion magazines.
Huene quickly rose to the position of Chief Photographer at Condé Nast’s French Vogue. His keen eye for elegance, sophistication, and the ease with which he moved in aristocratic circles, introduced him to some of the most beautiful women of the day, many of whom would become his models. They included the Swedish dancer Lisa Fonssagrives, the world’s first supermodel, who later married the American photographer Irving Penn.
In 1935, Huene made the decision to leave Condé Nast, joining the rival publication Harper’s Bazaar. Not content with capturing the fashions of the time, Huene’s ability to think creatively allowed him to move from fashion photography to the world of cinema. California beckoned, and in Hollywood, he developed innovative techniques that would help revolutionise movie making. His portraits of the film stars of that era are some of the most enduring images of the Golden Age of Hollywood; he photographed many of the twentieth century’s greatest movie stars – Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, to name a few. The time he spent in California also brought him into contact with the renowned film director George Cukor, and they collaborated on several films. When Cukor was shooting his first Technicolor film, A Star is Born (1954) starring Judy Garland, he called on Huene to be his color consultant. In 1947, he was appointed to a teaching position at the University of California, which he held up to the time of his death in 1968.
Huene published several books in the form of visual poetry. In African Mirage (1938), he not only connected with, and respected, the cultures of the indigenous communities of that continent, but he was ahead of conventional attitudes in his appreciation of the breadth and complexity of these cultures. His photograph Woman of Fort Lamy (1938) shows extraordinary empathy and humanistic concerns. He understood the cultural significance of their myriad clothing styles and was fully aware of the hidden symbolism suggesting a universal, if unspoken language.
Huene was both intoxicated and inspired by the light and poetic beauty of Greece and its classical architecture. This became a recurring theme throughout his photographic career.
He incorporated classical Grecian influences in his beautiful, carefully balanced images, often employing painted backdrops of imaginary vistas. A perfect example of this unique style is to be found in his iconic picture Divers (1930). Huene created a world of elegance and produced some of the defining images of the genre. In his own words:
At sundown, for color, the light is miraculous, the Parthenon assumes that wonderful glow – brilliant and scintillating and alive – with a golden sensuality all of its own.
– George Hoyningen-Huene
When asked to choose her favorite Vogue photographs from the magazine’s long history, editor Anna Wintour included Huene’s Divers alongside images by Edward Steichen, Horst P. Horst, Lee Miller, Irving Penn and Cecil Beaton. Huene was at the centre of a circle of international practitioners responsible for shaping the look and style of the 1930s and beyond. He was also one of the first fashion photographers to use male models in photo shoots.
George Hoyningen-Huene will be remembered for his unmatched talent for balancing color, form, light and shadow, and for the neo-classical atmosphere of his images. Many of his timeless photographic masterpieces can today be seen in the collections of the world’s leading museums.
© An essay by Bréon Rydell. All rights reserved.