The history of photography is hard to disentangle from the cult of celebrity.
That’s illustrated by the career of E.O. Hoppe, for many years one of the most famous photographers in the world and the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, “Society, Studio & Street” (through May 30).
Emil Otto Hoppe (1878-1972), the son of a Munich banker, settled in London where he became renowned for taking pictures of the celebrated. He was the Annie Leibovitz of his era. Cecil Beaton, another noted snapper of prominent people, called him “the master.” Hoppe took a huge number of shots: His autobiography was entitled “Hundred Thousand Exposures.”
Many of his sitters from the first half of the 20th century are still pretty big names in 2011: Arthur Conan Doyle, Einstein, Mussolini, Henry James. But in those days, the mix of occupations of A List celebs was slightly different from today’s.
Hoppe’s subjects included more writers and fewer film stars than now would be the case. Rock music, of course, had yet to be invented, though to an extent singers such as Paul Robeson and the dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fill that gap. Nijinsky, back stage in 1914, looked glamorously out of it in what became the fashionable rock manner.
Hoppe’s social photography was atmospheric. He had an eye for quirky personality among the non-famous too, and for odd occupations such as a skeleton importer in 1930s London or a zoo keeper posing with a hippo named Joan. He was better on literary lions: Thomas Hardy looking lined and melancholy, Ezra Pound wild and wacky, with a hair style like a miniature guardsman’s busby perched on his head.
Beautiful women also were a specialty. In 1922, Hoppe published an anthology of portrait shots of the female sitters from around the world he considered most attractive. It was a tacky, though catchy, idea -- and ahead of its time in that Hoppe selected his models from diverse cultures and ethnic groups. This created a great deal of comment in the international press, which generated useful publicity for the photographer.
If the world of Hoppe seems familiar, perhaps it’s because of the market for which he worked. Hoppe supplied early illustrated magazines, some of which, such as the Tatler, are still around. The combination of glamour, performing arts and big names from the arts is still the staple material of many magazines and newspapers. The difference is that Hoppe was working at the beginning of that epoch, and now perhaps -- as mass media shift and morph -- we’re coming to the end of it.
Hoppe’s retirement overlapped with the career of Ida Kar, whose work is the focus of a related exhibition also at the NPG, “Bohemian Photographer” (until June 19). Kar (1908-74), was another expatriate in London. Armenian in origin, she lived and worked in Egypt before coming to Britain in 1945.
Her scope was narrower than Hoppe’s, and her active career shorter. As the title of the show suggests, Kar’s essential subject was the artistic and literary world of the 1950s and early 1960s. It was an austere era and Kar caught it well: Iris Murdoch writing a novel on a drab bedroom floor, various sculptors and abstract painters in stark-looking studios.
She shared a few sitters with Hoppe, among them the author Somerset Maugham. A boring middle-aged figure when he posed for the latter in 1912, Maugham had improved a lot, visually, by 1958. Wrinkles suit some people.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)