Lucien Hervé: The Master of Contrast

41NLROEeT8L._SX342_On the 7th of August 1910, photographer Lucien Hervé (née László Elkán) was born in Hódmezõvásárhely, Hungary. He is remembered for his distinctive black-and-white photographs of strong visual contrast. Born to a middle class Jewish family, Hervé had never really planned to become a photographer. In fact, as a teenager he developed an extensive interest in music, piano being his instrument of choice. He initially planned to study music, but having left Hungary for Vienna in 1928, he considered taking up economics instead. Nevertheless, his artistic inclination proved stronger, and in 1929 he joined his brother in Paris, where photography came in handy to combine both the practical side of life and his artistic talents. “Hervé was Hungarian, and if we think about the great number of Hungarian photographers, including André Kertész, Brassaï, and Robert Capa, it may at least be explained in part by two concurrent phenomena: one being a tradition of Hungarian painting more rooted in graphic design than in color, and the other being the numerous clausus law passed in Hungary in the mid-1920s, which limited the number of Jewish students allowed to pursue a higher education there, forcing many of them to emigrate. Once abroad, without a diploma and no real mastery of the French language, photography proved to be the most reliable means of making a living.” (Olivier Beer, Lucien Hervé: Building Images)

41iVxBmgVVL._However, his road to photography was not immediate. Amongst other jobs, during his first years in Paris he worked as a self-taught fashion designer for renowned couture houses such as Patou, Chanel, Rochas, and Schiaparelli. But his later involvement with the French Communist Party and active political engagement stood in the way of  his promising career in fashion. The most decisive, in terms of his future career as a photographer, was 1938. That year, in collaboration with Nicolas Muller, a Hungarian photographer who had only arrived to Paris, Hervé published several articles in Marianne magazine. Muller spoke very little French; therefore he left the writing to Hervé whilst he focused on the photographs accompanying the articles. But soon Muller moved to Spain leaving Hervé to continue writing and illustrating the articles with his own pictures. The pictures showed Hervé’s fascination with high contrast, being very distinctive from what had been achieved in photography until then.

41YMC1jYmfL._SY445_The picture which marked the beginning of Hervé’s career was a 1938 self-portrait taken standing in front of a mirror. The interplay between light and shadow creates a powerful effect of intimacy as well as exposure of the photographer’s own image. He treated almost all of his later subjects in a similar fashion, including Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse, alongside architectural elements, which he liked to photograph the most. “If Hervé had to be categorized as part of a school, it would clearly be the French school of poetic realism. It would be tempting to link Hervé to the likes of Éduard Boubat or Willy Ronis. Except that then Hervé would be the photographer of the solitary man, since solitude is a recurrent theme in his work. But even more than solitude, what is striking is the practically systematic lack of eye contact. The subject does not look at the camera, as if, were he to be identified, he would lose his universality, be reduced to a simple anecdote. It is not the child that Hervé seeks to capture, but childhood. Nor does he depict the wretch, but rather wretchedness. …For Hervé, it is not so much a person’s eyes that are the soul of a photograph, but rather his symbolic representation, his place in the image.” (Beer)

41nB1-7A2MLIn 1949, Hervé got a commission from Plaisir de France magazine to take photographs for an article on Le Corbusier’s housing block in Marseille. “Since the magazine was reimbursing his travel expenses but not his lodging, he had just one day in which to shoot the construction site of the housing block, an example of Le Corbusier’s planned Ville Radieuse (Radiant City). Armed with a Rolleiflex 6 x 6, but without the wide-angle lens so useful for architectural photography… Hervé, as always, endeavoured to do “more with less.” He had no need of the entire range of a wide-angle lens when he could crop an image at his leisure. Until 1954… all Hervé’s photography was done without a wide-angle lens.” (Beer). It is likely that this was the secret to Hervé’s  intimate treatment of architectural surface, and the ticket which landed him a long and fruitful collaboration with Le Corbusier. “On his arrival in Marseille, the photographer was filled with wonder by what would become the Ville Radieuse. He was struck by the building’s juxtaposition with nature and was fascinated by the columns that raised it one story into the air while serving as ducts for all the piping. When the utilitarian marries the beautiful, the wedding is a success. Hervé spent the day chasing the sun and every last one of its glimmering rays. Before him was a symphony, and he wanted, at all costs, to record every tone of the symphony on his lens. Of the six hundred and fifty negatives he took in a single day, more than fifty were outright successes.” (Beer). All of the photographs taken during Hervé’s Marseille expedition were forwarded to Le Corbusier, who, stunned by their quality, wrote in a letter to the photographer: “Sir, you have the soul of an architect.” (December 15, 1949)

Feature Image Credit: © Judith Elkan