In partnership with the “Camera Obscura” gallery, the Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau, located in Gentilly is presenting through April 30, 2011, works by Lucien Hervé, Vivants. In the introductory text by artistic director Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq, the exhibition’s title can be understood by explaining that the photographer, above all known for his collaboration with the architect Le Corbusier from 1949 until his death in 1965, “was one of those unclassifiable photographers whose creativity went well beyond his technical skills.”
This can be explained by the fact that Lucien Hervé (born László Elkan) was a graduate of the Hungarian school that brought so many of its photographers to Paris including Brassaï, Kertész, ou Capa, … Born on August 7, 1910, in Hòdmezövàsàrhely, Hungary, he left for Budapest at 18 for his secondary studies before going to Vienna where he took drawing classes, ultimately joining his brother in Paris in 1929. There, among other activities, he became a fashion designer for Jean Patou, before being fired for union related activism. He became a French citizen in 1937. With his photographer cousin Nicolas Müller, he began working as a journalist in 1938 for Marianne Magazine. In September of that same year, Müller left France for Spain while Lucien Hervé remained, taking pictures to accompany his articles. Legendary or not, this famous self portrait taken in front of his hotel room mirror on the rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière would be his first photo. Although he claims to have remained independent of any influence, this portrait indeed bears an Eastern European style. If, like Kertész or Cartier-Bresson one can believe that he was just a mere technician, his studies in drawing and his passion for Eisenstein’s cinematography would determine his eye and his photographic approach. “Enjoying great freedom in photography, his pictures were like preliminary drawings he would continually recrop and reinterpret. He worked hard in the darkroom, playing with shape, shadows, contrasts, experimenting with different crops of the same pictures.” Mobilized when the war broke out, he was imprisoned in 1940. In his prison camp, he studied painting and created a resistance group. In 1941, he escaped and joined the resistance, taking on the name that would remain with him, Lucien Hervé. At the war’s end, he once again began working in artistic photography for France Illustration and Point de Vue.
1949 would be another important year. Following Père Couturier’s advice, the Dominican director of Art Sacré, he photographed Le Corbusier’s “Cité Radieuse” under construction in Marseille. Visually amazed, he shot 650 pictures in one day. He sent a selection to the architect, who liked them, responding: “You have an architect’s soul and you know how to look at architecture”. It was the beginning of a long collaboration that would last until the architect’s death in 1965. But as Annie-Laure emphasized, Lucien Hervé’s work was not just limited to “Le Corbu” (which would have satisfied many a photograph). His reputation led him to work for the greatest architects, from Niemeyer to Prouvé or Gropius, working for nearly all magazines or publications covering architecture.
But it is important to keep in mind his personal work that began after the war, in 1947, with the series “PSQF”, (Paris Sans Quitter ma Fenêtre (Paris from my window) shot from his balcony at 21 Avenue Paul Adam. The series is often considered (perhaps wrongly) reminiscent of a series by André Kertész. From his many travels around the world, with illustrious architects, there always remain a few personal, discrete scenes of children, workers, games, or people confronted by these massive new buildings. However, even if he wrote in 1970 in the preface to his book “Le beau court la rue”: "Life is tumultuous and present everywhere. Even still lives can testify to life, movement, intentions, harmony, absence, drama. All we can hope is to give birth to a vague idea about everything by focusing on a minute detail”, his work’s strength.
That is undoubtedly what Le Corbusier wanted to express when he wrote to the President of the 1st Sao Paolo Architecture Biennale in 1951: “…his pictures make spectators feel or appreciate certain things, especially the spirit of the forms and the use of raw materials. About these two elements, the photographer was not concerned about photogenics. He was far more worried about the spirit of form, showing clearly how a building could be a perfectly homogeneous organism…He also knew how to demonstrate that above and beyond traditional architecture, it was possible to provoke emotional architectural explosions everywhere, at any time, in any place, from the most unusual to the most humble.”
Contrary to the German photographers of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity), like Werner Mantz, Lucien Hervé did not have a frontal approach to his "architectures”, rather, he played with their graphics, using only light to highlight their forms. The only influence that can be attributed to him is perhaps Bauhaus and its “new vision”.
But why classify him? Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq defined him perfectly, “he is unclassifiable”.
Correspondent for the Institut de France
Until April 30
Vivants, Photographies de Lucien Hervé
Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau
1 rue de la Division du Général Leclerc