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August 19 2012

Martine Franck obituary

Photographer whose work ranged from portraits of the famous to pictures of the poor

Martine Franck, who has died aged 74, was a photographer of great contrasts. She started out by taking pictures in Asia, a continent she revisited for weeks at a time, but she also devoted herself to documenting daily life close to her homes in Paris and the Luberon, Provence. Her work is characterised by a fascination with the little intimacies and interactions in the lives of anonymous poor, marginalised and elderly people, yet she also assembled a matchless portfolio of portraits of famous authors and artists, including Seamus Heaney, Marc Chagall and Diego Giacometti.

Franck never adhered to the opinion professed by her fellow Magnum agency photographer Eve Arnold that all photographers are obliged to be intrusive. Ever modest, she said: "I think I was shy as a young woman and realised that photography was an ideal way of expressing myself, of telling people what was going on without having to talk." In 1970, she married the celebrated French photographer and co-founder of the Magnum agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The couple collaborated on a series of portraits of the artist Balthus, as retiring by temperament as Franck herself.

She was born to a Belgian banker, Louis Franck, and his British wife, Evelyn, in Antwerp. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, her father, who made his career in London, joined the British army. The rest of the family was evacuated to the US and spent the war on Long Island and in Arizona. She was educated in Europe, and studied history of art at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.

Writing her thesis (on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the influence of cubism on sculpture) convinced Franck that she did not wish to be an academic or a curator, but a photographer. Her father had moved in artistic circles and one of her first portraits was of the sculptor Etienne Martin emerging from a cave smeared with clay. In 1963, she went to China, taking her cousin's Leica camera with her, and discovered the joys of documenting other cultures. Returning home via Hong Kong, Cambodia, India, Afghanistan and Turkey, she paused to visit the theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine and bought her first camera in Japan. She kept to a Leica, and predominantly used black-and-white film, throughout her career.

Returning to France, she worked as a photographic assistant at Time-Life while developing her own technique. Her early mentors were Eliot Elisofon and Gjon Mili, yet she also cited dramatically different female photographers as influences: Julia Margaret Cameron, for her portraits, and Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Lange's social conscience was reflected in Franck's project on old people's homes for the Petits Frères des Pauvres association. Bourke-White's love for play of light and geometric shapes is embedded in arguably Franck's single most perfect image, that of the bathers at the poolside at Le Brusc (Provence), taken in 1976. She described her experience of capturing it: "I remember running to get the image while changing the film, quickly closing down the lens as the sunlight was so intense. That's what makes photography so exciting." A moment later the positions of all five figures and their shadows on the white tiles would have irrevocably altered. The image has stood the test of time and was used as the cover shot for her book in the series I Grandi Fotografi in 2003.

Franck's work was used in Life, Fortune and Vogue, for which she shot portraits of women in public life, including her fellow photographer Sarah Moon and Mnouchkine, who made Franck the official photographer to her Théâtre du Soleil. Franck's fascination with masks and disguises found an outlet in Mnouchkine's ambitious deployment of kathakali, kabuki and commedia dell'arte. Their collaboration led to Franck experimenting with colour photography, which she used to capture theatrical productions such as Robert Wilson's ethereal version of Fables de la Fontaine at the Comédie Française in 2004. Franck's love of the theatrical could transform her quiet unobtrusiveness.

In 1966, Franck met Cartier-Bresson, who epitomised Magnum's tradition of humanitarian photography. Franck was adamant that she would neither bask in his reflection nor disappear in his shadow and she joined the Vu agency in 1970. Her first solo exhibition was planned for the ICA in London that year; when she saw that the invitations were embossed with the information that her husband would be present at the launch, she cancelled the show.

With Vu's demise, Franck co-founded the Viva agency in 1972. It also collapsed and it was not until 1980 that Franck joined Magnum, becoming a full member in 1983. She was one of the few women to be accepted into the agency and served as vice-president from 1998 to 2000. Eschewing the war/human tragedy reportage that characterised Magnum's reputation, Franck continued her projects on marginal or isolated lives. When I first met her, in the 1990s, she had just completed her book on Tory Island, a "small rock" off the northern Irish coast with a population of around 130 Gaelic-speakers, where she lived in order to document their way of life.

Always a feminist, Franck was not above picking a grandiose book title – such as Des Femmes et la Création. It is typical that one of her final projects involved three weeks spent visiting small villages in Gujerat, western India, documenting young girls embroidering their own dowries.

As well as their homage to Balthus, Franck and Cartier-Bresson undertook a joint project in the Soviet Union. Franck also created a small book of portraits of her husband. Among the most memorable of this similarly shy and elusive character is that taken from behind, showing the back of his head. His reflection in the square mirror before him is repeated in the self-portrait he is sketching: a reflection on a reflection. Franck never used him as mentor or protector but warmly concluded: "Henri was both critical and inspirational as well as warmly supportive of me as a photographer". They had one daughter, Melanie, another reason for Franck to operate close to home when possible.

Franck's brother, the photographic curator and collector Eric Franck, affirms: "Henri was always very generous in encouraging her work, something she respected greatly." Franck's sister-in-law, Louise Baring, adds: "What was so extraordinary about Martine was that with subtlety and grace she could both be a great photographer herself and at the same time honour her husband's tradition."

She worked hard to launch the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in 2002. In 2005, she was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. After her diagnosis with bone marrow cancer in 2010, she continued showing her work, and had exhibitions earlier this year at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and at the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris.

She is survived by Melanie, three grandchildren and her brother, Eric.

• Martine Franck, photographer, born 3 April 1928; died 16 August 2012


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July 28 2012

Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 – review

Tate Britain, London

Another London is a show of black-and-white photographs of the host city that can only have been conceived with Olympic visitors in mind. This is a tourist guide to London at its most familiar and nostalgic. It is Big Ben and the Tower of London, bobbies and red buses, pearly kings, cockney sparrows, roll out the barrel and change the guard, all viewed through a haze of smog so unvarying that it makes even the work of such disparate artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt look speciously similar.

The photographs all come from the collection of Cartier-Bresson's brother-in-law, Eric Franck, who has given more than a thousand pictures to Tate, doubling its holdings. Some of these are classics, including Irving Penn's turbaned cleaning ladies with their battered buckets and their shining resolve, and Lartigue's portrait of his wife, Bibi, walking towards the camera as the street shears away behind her looking remarkably like 19th-century Paris.

Other images are by less well-known names, such as the Viennese photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who clambered up the dome of St Paul's to photograph the bombed-out streets, or Leonard Freed who memorialised the Hassidic communities of north London in the 70s. But all the works are by international photographers, looking in from the outside, which may be why so many of these scenes turn out to be proverbial: tea at a Lyons Corner House, City gents in bowler hats, street urchins playing in the East End terraces and that most unchanging of events, the changing of the guard.

Sometimes, the image has a distinctive sensibility, especially among the photographers of central and eastern Europe with their dramatic tonal contrasts and their fragmented compositions. Suschitzky took a bewildering photograph of figures on a merry-go-round hurtling into white space that fills one with excitable dread.

But one senses that some of these photographers had arrived in search of the Blitz spirit, the class system and the stiff upper lip and couldn't resist the sight of a cockle-seller or a schoolboy in a top hat. They photographed the general more than the particular: the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the Norland nannies forging across Hyde Park with their Silver Cross prams, the working-class orators of Speakers' Corner, preferably with a British bulldog in sight.

Black-and-white photography, of course, has the look of documentary truth; the historic record. It is apt to depict the present as if it were already the past. But even so, there are startling anachronisms here. Victorian Londoners as late as the 1920s and Eliza Doolittle, as it seems, still selling flowers in her long black clothes in the 1930s.

For me, the most remarkable photograph in this show is by Robert Frank: a sharp perspective of a London terrace in dank gloom, a motionless street cleaner framed in the window of a waiting hearse. A child darts past, her little body captured in midair, as if running away from death, or perhaps from this dark and narrow life.

It is never a sunny day in these photographs. Nor does London look like the immense and scattered metropolis it is. This is partly to do with the fact that some of these photographers were on assignment photographing the coronation of George VI, or VE Day, or the wedding of Princess Anne. Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square appear over and over again.

But perhaps London was not an easy subject for foreigners during these decades: visibility was frequently poor in the fog and smog, the geography was too diffuse, maybe the society was too hard to crack. Bill Brandt stands before a Bethnal Green doorstep to take his photograph, Eve Arnold manages to get in among the drying stockings of a steamy shared bathroom. But there is scarcely an interior shot anywhere in this exhibition.

And in the end, colour takes over in a Cultural Olympiad kind of way – the colours of a mixed-race, multi-cultural, international, all-welcoming London. This is as much a cliche of 20th-century photography of the capital as the Queen Mother visiting East End housewives during the Blitz. Individual images may be strong – it could hardly be otherwise given the calibre of the artists – but in general this is a safe and conservative show. Another London it certainly isn't.


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March 09 2012

The month in photography – audio slideshow

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring William Eggleston, Weegee, Tim Hetherington, Ryan McGinley and Eve Arnold



March 05 2012

Eve Arnold's Brides of Christ finds new home at V&A

Late photographer's shot of women on their way to become nuns bequeathed by former chief curator of National Portrait Gallery

A photograph by Eve Arnold of young women in wedding dresses and elaborate veils on their way to become brides of Christ as nuns has been bequeathed to the V&A.

It is the first acquisition by the museum of a work by the photographer who died in January just short of her 100th birthday.

The signed and inscribed gelatin silver print was given by Arnold to the late Robin Warwick Gibson, a former chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery where he worked on establishing the photography collection and mounted a major exhibition of Arnold's work in 1991. He died in 2010 and left the print to the V&A through the Art Fund.

Arnold was renowned for winning the trust of her subjects and capturing them in intimate moments, whether celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe, or the women the photographer captured in a pool of light from a cloister window. The photograph is one of a series on the lives of nuns that Arnold took during the mid-1960s, which included images of women in different convents at work and prayer. The full title of the V&A's new addition is A Meeting of the Brides of Christ on their Wedding Day to their Lord at the Nunnery in Godalming, Surrey.

Martin Roth, director of the museum, said the V&A was thrilled to add the image to its vast photography collections, and described the image as "a splendid example of the work of Eve Arnold, one of the finest photojournalists of our time".

There are plans for a future display of the print in the V&A's photography gallery.


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March 04 2012

The Photography of Eve Arnold – review

Art Sensus, London

"What drove and kept me going over the decades? What was the motive force? If I had to use a single word, it would be curiosity." This quote from the pioneering photojournalist Eve Arnold, who died in January, aged 99, is among the various first-person wall texts that punctuate All About Eve, a retrospective of her work. Just how curious she was is evident in the timeline of the projects she undertook in her long career. It takes up one whole wall and makes for an illuminating read, not just because of the longevity of her career – from the late 1940s to the 90s – but for the range of subjects she tackled.

In 1978 alone, for instance, she shot several portraits, including Dirk Bogarde, Francis Bacon and Irene Papas, alongside advertisements for Optrex, the English Tourist Board, Pentax and Rolex as well as assignments on the White Jews of Cochin, Indian troubadours and the London Symphony Orchestra for the Sunday Times magazine. Her work rate was relentless – she was still travelling on assignments well into her 70s – but as this potted history of her career shows the quality seldom wavered.

All About Eve is essentially a celebration of Arnold's life and work, the photographs chosen by her close friends the curator Zelda Cheatle and the academic Brigitte Lardinois, who worked closely with Arnold at the Magnum Photos agency in the 1990s. It's a big, wide-ranging show selected from the vast archive of one anonymous private collector that includes many of Arnold's best-known photographs – a series each on Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X – and several that are not so instantly recognisable. There are one or two surprises. The first is a beautiful self-portrait from 1948 which greets you at the entrance to the show. Here she looks young, chic and totally at ease before her own camera. As with many Eve Arnold photographs it comes with a story attached. Apparently she was accidentally locked into a friend's studio in Pennsylvania and, bored, began photographing herself to pass the time. The result is characteristically self-assured.

The earliest pictures in the main gallery are her studies from 1951 of a group of black migrant labourers who journeyed north every year at harvest time to work on white-owned farms in Long Island. There are perhaps unconscious traces of the 30s work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange here, but Arnold's sombre and slightly surreal-looking group portrait of the farm owners, the Davis family, enjoying a picnic among the graves of their ancestors, is all her own.

Throughout, you marvel once again at Arnold's ability to gain access to her subjects at work and at play. Her many portraits of celebrities, which she called "personalities", are the product of a more open and innocent era, when stars were not so paranoid about controlling their image. There's a beautifully intimate shot of the film director John Huston and his then teenage daughter Anjelica, sketching. Arnold caught a young Michael Caine cavorting playfully with Candice Bergen in a break from shooting The Magus in Majorca, and Marilyn Monroe lunching in the woods with her husband, Arthur Miller, on the set of The Misfits. There's a great shot of a young Andy Warhol deeply engrossed in a painting in the Factory in New York, and another of a luminous Mia Farrow in rehearsal.

I've always been drawn more to Eve Arnold's in-depth reportage, the great commissions she did when she was very much a pioneering woman in a man's world. Again, her ability to be in the right place at the right time, and to catch it up close and personal, is almost uncanny. Her photograph of leaders of the American Nazi party attending a Black Muslim rally in 1961 – they were united in the belief that America should be racially segregated – has a chilling power 50 years later. A snatched black-and-white portrait, starkly titled Divorce in Moscow, USSR, 1966, is powerful in an altogether different way. In a drably functional room, a distraught man looks away from the camera to the right, while his wife stares stoically off in the opposite direction. The body language speaks volumes: his head rests on his hand; her hands are clasped tight, her wedding ring just visible. The physical space between the couple is minimal, but the emotional space is vast. In the background, oblivious, a man reads a newspaper, while another is engrossed in a book. Arnold catches the full weight of this fraught moment, and the universal truth that great personal suffering, as Auden put it, often "takes place when someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". It's an extraordinarily poignant photograph: the decisive moment rendered just as powerfully, if not more so, as in a great piece of observational writing or film-making.

Eve Arnold was a single-minded and determined documentary photographer, and a portraitist who won the trust of her famous subjects. Her travels took her to Afghanistan, Cuba, China and Mongolia, where she made a wonderfully evocative colour series of young women training to be horse riders in the national militia. Somehow it all came together in a visual style that amounts to a signature: nothing more or less than the world according to Eve Arnold.


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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