Surface tensions

It is conventional to refer to Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972) as an unknown or at least under-appreciated photographer. In the catalogue to Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, calls his portraits “insufficiently recognised”.

Yet Hoppé was the superstar photographer of the period before the second world war, known as the great portraitist of his time, with a high-water mark in the early or mid-1920s before he started to be interested in other kinds of work. Philip Prodger, curator of this exhibition, relates that after Hoppé published his Book of Fair Women in 1922, he would be interrupted in restaurants to stand up and award one of the women present the laurels of the evening for beauty. Hoppé had a huge studio in South Kensington that had been Millais’ before him (and which was to be Francis Bacon’s later). When he travelled to the US, his doings were reported in the newspapers.

But his pictures – at least as prints – wore less well than those of some of his rivals and his fame declined. Part of the explanation lies with the photographer’s estate. For many years, even while he was alive, Hoppé’s pictures lay in the successor-companies to the picture libraries he himself started, where they were filed by subject-matter rather than by his name. Some years ago an enterprising American firm identified them and bought them and set about rebuilding his reputation as an individual photographer. A string of books followed, highlighting aspects of the work and this welcome exhibition of portraits takes its place in that line.

Hoppé made most of his money from reproduction. He liked to make books and he was in high demand from magazines. What he was not particularly interested in was the photographic print as an object in its own right. Not for Hoppé the obsessive craft skill in printing of such as the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring (a self-conscious group of photographers of about 1900).

We learn that Hoppé’s wife made some of his prints in a darkroom in the basement while he was charming the sitters upstairs. His lighting was normally cursory and with few exceptions his portraits have plain backgrounds and simple, striking graphics. He showed no great preference for any kind of camera or paper or process.

His method of portraiture – by no means a bad one – was to try and immerse himself in the world of the sitter, reading their books or going to see their plays as appropriate, then to simplify by removing the extraneous, to concentrate on the face and sometimes the hands, maybe occasionally to shift the focus a little – and job done. He was, in other words, no great fetishist for the photographic object. In a major exhibition of this kind there is no great extra pleasure in seeing the prints themselves. What there is, however, is utter confidence in simple direct seeing. His stare was his style.

Hoppé’s studio portraits look like the work of the photographers of a generation before, notably of the great French caricaturist Etienne Carjat. Carjat, who died in 1906, was also widely reproduced in the journals. Carjat’s caricatures are not typically satirical; they merely exaggerate the salient features. Hoppé worked like that, too. There is a certainty about the better Hoppé portraits in which he gets to the essence of the physical presentation of the subjects. Later successors would include Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, the great portraitist of the period after the second world war. Neither photographer dealt much in nuances.

Hoppé was modern in the sense that he marketed a package that was about more than just the photographs. He supplied simple monumental portraits by an obviously successful “house”, made by a man who carried himself like a celebrity. It worked.

Later he became interested in broadening his range and this exhibition includes rather too many mainly 1930s studies from beyond his studio, including magazine stories on school or borstal education, military training and so on. These are not works of major importance. They can’t equal the work Bill Brandt or even Moholy-Nagy was making in Britain at the time.

What is important but oddly missing here is a good demonstration of Hoppé in print. The show contains a few books and other laid-out pages of his pictures: these are what he really knew about. And we learn that even a moderate-sized print is too big for Hoppé; he didn’t care enough about photographic surfaces to make them interesting. He cared about the sitters, and by leaving so much of the emotion of each picture to them – to the marks of character and experience upon them – he made himself a greater portraitist at the cost of being a lesser photographer.

‘Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street’, National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 30,

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