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EO Hoppé back in the frame

Street photography pioneer famous for Book of Fair Women to be celebrated with first major show in 30 years

The man who was one of the most famous photographers in the world in the 1920s – courted by the rich and famous when not going on street photography safaris with his friend George Bernard Shaw, yet almost forgotten when he died in 1972 – will be celebrated in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, it was announced today.

The last major exhibition of the work of EO Hoppé was more than 30 years ago, but the spring show at the NPG will include previously unseen street shots that have been buried since the 50s in the photographer's own voluminous archives.

He was better known as a studio photographer of radiantly beautiful women as well as society and showbusiness figures, politicians and royalty – work that made him rich enough to set up his studio in the palatial 33-room former home of the artist Sir John Everett Millais in Kensington.

However, curator Phillip Prodger says Hoppé was also interested in the nature of success and failure, and in the psychology of his subjects – often photographed in intense and startlingly modern tight-cropped close up, with no background detail.

"It has been a great pleasure to get to know Hoppé a little better," Prodger says. "He was a very interesting man; a progressive thinker with an unexpected and puckish sense of humour."

When Hoppé left the studio behind for the street, he was known to have worked with a hidden camera, concealed in a bag or brown paper parcel – leading to a hasty exit from some East End pubs and cafes when he was spotted. He was one of the first photographers to shoot with concealed apparatus.

One of the highlights will be an extraordinary portrait of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky – his face drained, almost drugged – in character as the Rose from the Ballets Russes' Le Spectre de la Rose during the company's 1914 visit to London, when it was the most famous and outrageous in the ballet world. Nijinsky several times failed to turn up at the Kensington studio and finally, in despair, Hoppé went backstage at the theatre for the last performance. Nijinsky, drenched in sweat and exhausted, brushed past him wrapped in a dressing gown – and then dropped the gown and turned into the light for a few snatched shots.

The show will also include many images from Hoppé's most famous creation, his 1922 Book of Fair Women, a compilation of portraits of the women he considered most beautiful on earth – including, unusually for the time, African, Asian and Caribbean subjects. Prodger said that although it now seems a profoundly misogynist project, Hoppé meant to convey his belief that true beauty came from freedom and fulfilment.

Fair Women's success literally made him a judge of beauty. Wherever he went following its publication, including on tours of the US, beauty contests were hastily organised and he was invited to give the Hoppé seal of approval to the winner.

After the first world war, he mainly worked on building up his commercial photographic library – and in doing so buried his own reputation. The library was sold on to another collection, where his images were filed by subject among hundreds by other photographers. Many have only been identified by photography historians in the last decade.

In his final years, Hoppé was bitter that the Royal Photographic Society had never given him any recognition. But a campaign by fellow photographers including Cecil Beaton finally won him an honorary fellowship in 1972, the year of his death.

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street is at London's National Portrait Gallery from 17 February – 30 May 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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