The Harper’s Bazaar Creative Director Who Changed Photo History Finally Gets a Museum Show

Alexey Brodovitch may not be a household name, but he is in some ways the reason that Jackson Pollock is today one of the most famous artists of the past century.

While Brodovitch was creative director at Harper’s Bazaar, he also taught at the Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research. In 1950, photographer Hans Namuth, one of his students, had been offered the chance to shoot Pollock, who at the time had not yet achieved widespread fame. After seeing Pollock’s work in person, Namuth wasn’t interested in the artist, but Brodovitch convinced him to take the opportunity to photograph Pollock in his East Hampton studio.

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The photographs were published in Brodovitch’s journal Portfolio the next year. They depict Pollock dripping and splattering paint across canvases laid on the floor, and are today among the most well-known images of the Abstract Expressionists. Without Brodovitch, these pictures may very well may not have been seen widely, let alone even exist.

Brodovitch is now being centered as a key figure in photo history with a show devoted to him at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. It is being billed as the first US museum exhibition to look at the arc of the Russian-American art director’s career and to explore his influence on a group of mid-century American photographers. While at Harper’s Bazaar, where Brodovitch worked from 1934 to 1958, he had considerable influence, mentoring photographers like Eve Arnold, Lisette Model and Richard Avedon.

The exhibition’s organizer, Tate Modern assistant curator Katy Wan, maintains that Brodovitch remains an elusive figure—even to photography experts. She struggled with a dearth of available materials around his work, but her show, which features magazines lent by photography critic Vince Aletti, should do a lot to rescue Brodovitch from relative obscurity. To hear more about Brodovitch, ARTnews spoke with Wan about his work and his impact.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARTnews: You’ve researched photographer Garry Winogrand’s work in the past. How did that work lead to this show about Brodovitch?

Katy Wan: I was looking at the history of dress and the history of photography. I was really interested in the blurred boundaries between the disciplines of fashion and photography. Winogrand was a Brodovitch student for a short time—Brodovitch appears a couple of times in Winogrand’s life, both as an instructor but also in support of Winogrand’s now-famous 1964 Guggenheim application, where he talks about his desire that photography should be a way to try and understand society’s motivations and the motivations of individuals. When I was reading about other photographers of this era, I could see that Brodovitch appeared again and again in their biographies, both anecdotally but also at critical moments. I couldn’t understand why this individual who had touched the lives of so many was not better known himself.

As a curator, there are so many questions about how to balance an artist’s creative output alongside their biography. But his interpersonal relationships were really integral to his teaching methods.

Where does Brodovitch’s story with Harper’s begin?

Brodovitch was recruited to the magazine by Carmel Snow, the Irish born editor-in-chief, and she’d assembled a team [that included] both Brodovitch and Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor. Together they had a vision for the magazine, to usher in this new era of modernity. Snow identifies Brodovitch as being able to bring some of the perceived elegance of European art and design into the magazine.

How would you characterize the photography that Brodovitch commissioned?

It’s mostly done in stage studio settings. The lighting is very highly staged, and we imagine that the models have been posing for a very long time. What Brodovitch does upon his arrival is twofold: it’s these imports of European design, but it’s also making photography the cornerstone of the magazine’s visual identity. In one of the covers, there is a photograph by Man Ray, showing these disembodied hands on a crystal ball. It’s paired with these very eerie eyes floating above surface of page. We might consider this an homage to Surrealism, [whose] artists and intellectuals were considering notions of the unconscious. This trifecta of editors were embracing the idea of the fashion magazine as a fantasy space, one that is much closer to the real lives of its readers and its subscribers.

Brodovitch had a connection to so many of these images that have gained power in a pre-internet era. There was Lisette Model’s Coney Island Bather, New York [1939–41], an image that was incredibly important for Model, given that she selected it as the cover of her Aperture monograph. There were photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, which are related to a spread in Harper’s Bazaar publicizing the release of the 1952 photobook The Decisive Moment in the United States.

Eve Arnold. Models backstage before a fashion show in Harlem. Harlem, New York City, USA. 1950. © Eve Arnold | Magnum Photos

Brodovitch was a teacher to the photographer Lillian Bassman, then her boss. By her accounts, he worked to get her a salary to bring her on as an assistant at Harper’s. In a 2011 interview, Bassman described his teaching style as “strange” and said he took credit for many things she produced while she worked at Harper’s.

It was a sometimes a fractious relationship. When he heard that she was essentially taking the lead on the creative direction of the magazine, there’s a story that he stormed into Carmel Snow’s office and demanded to be given a credit. I think after that, he’d had his fill of input into the magazines; it was something that he allowed Lillian Bassman to run with. There’s this kind of a very strange story of mentorship. I think there were occasional instances where he needed to assert his creative control.

The Hans Namuth is story about the Pollock shoot is sort of telling about this dynamic.

Namuth talks extensively about Brodovitch’s impact on his life as a teacher, but also this pivotal moment when Namuth declares, almost apathetically, that he is going to see Jackson Pollock. I think it’s partly that Brodovitch recognized the importance of the subject, but he also knew how to pair a photographer with a subject. Of course, he was accustomed to doing that with a magazine.

Brodovitch published these images himself in his own magazine Portfolio in 1951, a very short-lived passion project that he created with Frank Zachary and George Rosen. This was a very strange magazine, dedicated to all things interesting about print. There’s a section on stereoscopic photography that comes with a little set of glasses like within the magazine—you can activate the image yourself. It was beautifully made. But the reason it only ran for three issues was because Brodovitch didn’t want to have any external advertising in the magazine. He felt that these would be visual interruptions to the flows and sequences that he’d created.

In 1945, when Brodovitch published the photobook Ballet, it was an unusual moment because he didn’t produce many of his own projects independently. Why was the subject matter so radical?

Many images are from the 1930s, and were taken backstage at the American dance company Wooster Monte Carlo. The company was born out of the original Ballet Russes, founded in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev. Many of these dancers would have come from Imperial Russia, possibly found their way to Paris, and then ended up in the United States. This is likely why the subject was so compelling for him. The photographs are very strange. Other photographers might have chosen to show the clarity of the dancers, movements, and outfits.  

There’s one black-and-white image in the exhibition’s section on Ballet where a quarter of the frame is occupied by the back of someone’s head.

All of the images in Ballet are really blurry. They’re often out of focus. They have light flares obscuring some of the individual dancers. It’s almost laughable. It’s almost a guide for how not to take photographs. And yet, at the same time, it captures something of the experience of seeing it happening in front of your eyes. Brodovitch only made one photobook in his lifetime, but it’s considered to be this such a historically important object.

It was never given a commercial distribution. It’s worth mentioning that some of Brodovitch’s materials were destroyed two house fires in the mid-1950s, toward the end of his time in the United States. Copies of Ballet were thought to be lost in that as well. We don’t know how many of those original 500 printed editions are still around.

A question that I returned to again and again is whether it’s possible to make an exhibition out of a subject for whom so little unique material exists. Should this person just be consigned to the sidelines of history? My feeling is that no, he shouldn’t be.

As an art director, he was manufacturing images. There is one shot by Japanese photographer Hiro that shows Brodovitch in this mode while working—he had to keep an audience in mind.

I think aside from the cultural imports of European designs, and on the printed page, his role was to execute the bigger picture of the magazine. In the Hiro photograph of Brodovitch, he’s striding over spreads from the 1945 Richard Avedon and Truman Capote book Observations. We know that this was the way in which he considered the flow of the fashion magazine of Harper’s Bazaar when he was working on it. I think that along with Snow, what they were doing at the outlet was taking readers through a journey that would be physically impossible otherwise. If you imagine someone reading the magazine at home, possibly in a suburb in the Midwest, not necessarily able to get to all the places that are imagined in the magazine, the magazine is a way to project oneself into those spaces.

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