An Iconic Photographer of the Twentieth Century

George Hoyningen-Huene (1900–1968) is acknowledged as one of the most iconic pioneers in the genre of fashion photography. His elegant pared down style has had a dramatic impact on fashion houses around the world and his work continues to have relevance today, as someone who created some of the most striking photographic portraits and compositions of the twentieth century.

G H-H was born in St. Petersburg. His father was a Baltic aristocrat, who was 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. Hoyningen-Huene absorbed and was inspired by the beauty and sophistication of the pre-revolutionary period, influences that would eventually shape his personal style, and that of his work. His schooling was interrupted by the outbreak of WW1 and Europe had entered a period of great political upheaval.

In Russia, in an attempt to save the monarchy, close friends of the G H-H 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 owned in Russia by the family, was lost. He enlisted in the British army and played a part in a failed British counter-revolution plot. He eventually moved to Paris.

George Hoyningen-Huene with camera, cirka 1930
George Hoyningen-Huene with camera, cirka 1930
The Divers, swimwear by Izod, 1930. By George Hoyningen-Huene
The Divers, swimwear by Izod, 1930. By George Hoyningen-Huene

In Paris, he became part of the inner circle of the renown surrealist photographer, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) with whom he collaborated 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. G H-H and his circle included Salvador Dali, 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 an early leader in the world of photography. He was one of the first to capture the style of the Haute Couture fashion houses of Paris, Chanel, Balenciaga and Cartier, as is witnessed by the many covers, he shot for the world’s leading fashion magazines.

G H-H quickly rose to the position of Chief Photographer of 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. He photographed the Swedish Lisa Fonssagrives, the world’s first supermodel, who later married Irving Penn.

In 1935, G H-H made the decision to leave Condé Nast and Paris, and travel to New York.  He joined Harper’s Bazaar and was soon producing some of the most striking images ever published in that magazine. 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 movies. California beckoned, and in Hollywood, he developed innovative photographic 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, photographing some of the twentieth century’s greatest movie stars – Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, to name but a few. The time he spent in California, also brought him into contact with the renowned film director, George Cukor. They collaborated on several films together. When Cukor was shooting his first Technicolor film, the classic ‘A Star is Born,’ he called on G H-H to be his colour consultant.

Huene published several books in the form of visual poetry. In ‘African Mirage,’ he not only connected with, and respected, the cultures of the indigenous communities of that great continent, but he was ahead of conventional attitudes in his appreciation of the breadth and complexity of these cultures. His photograph of Woman of Fort Lamy, 1938, shows extraordinary empathy and humanistic concerns. He understood the cultural significance of their many clothing styles and was fully aware of the hidden symbolism suggesting a universal, if unspoken language.

Portrait of Greta Garbo, 1955
Male Nude, 1929. George Hoyningen-Huene

G H-H was both haunted and inspired by the light and poetic beauty of Greece and its classic architecture. This became a recurring theme throughout his photographic career.

He incorporated these major influences in his portrayal of beautiful glamorized images, with their succint symmetry, often against an imaginary vista. A perfect example of this unique style, is to be found in his iconic picture ’The Divers.’  H-H created a world of elegance and produced some of the defining images of the genre. In George Hoyningen-Huene’s own words:

At sundown, for colour, the light is miraculous, the Parthenon assumes that wonderful glow – brilliant and scintilating and alive – with a golden sensuality all of its own.

– George Hoyningen-Huene

When asked to choose her favourite Vogue covers, Anna Wintour included H-H’s ’The Divers’ (July 1930).  She also selected images by Edward Steichen, Horst P Horst, Irving Penn and Cecil Beaton. At the centre of this circle of international photographers, was H-H. This gifted group would help to create the look and style of the 1930s era, and beyond.  Also included, were photographers Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Lee Miller, all of whom were active supporters of the human rights movement. G H-H was 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 colour, form, light, shadow, and the pared-back look of his images. Many of his timeless photographic masterpieces are in the collections of the world’s leading museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), NYC.

In 1947, Hoyningen-Huene was appointed to a teaching position at the University of California, which he held up to the time of his death in 1968.

© An essay by Bréon Rydell. All rights reserved. 

George Hoyningen-Huene photographing Rita Hayworth, 1943
George Hoyningen-Huene photographing Rita Hayworth,1943
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