(12/55) Alexey Brodovitch - photographer/designer

Alexey Brodovitch and students
(copyright respective original copyright owners)

Photography is an odd form of visual communication. It really is. Part science. Part alchemy (though this is more apparent in relation to non digital photography.) And part art form.
I say part art form because art isn't the only application of the photographic image. It's been used (and continues to be used) for an ever increasing variety of tasks from recording routine images of individuals making credit card transactions on street corners around the world to mapping weather patterns from orbital platforms in space.

Given its dominant presence in our everyday lives, its perhaps surprising to learn therefore that very few individuals, in the relatively short history of photography have successfully created substantial bodies of work outside of the conventional photographic typologies. of art or craft. Fewer still have left a definitive lasting stamp on creative forms outside the confines of still photography.

Would many students of photography consider for example, that Paul Strand's work as a film-maker was of equal or greater significance to his distinguished history of stills work?

Personally, I can think of only 3 individuals who have successfully combined a substantive radical vision using still photography with an equally radical understanding of how to develop & use another visual form or variety of forms. And left a lasting legacy in those forms.

The first is William Klein, who works as a painter/designer, film-maker & still photographer. The second is Robert Frank, who works in photography and film. And the third is/was Alexey Brodovitch.

A relentless innovator, Brodovitch created works which overlapped conventional ideas separating  graphic design, layout, publishing & original photography.

Brodovitch was also, along with a select few individuals around the world, for example Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind in the USA, and Paul Hill & Peter Goldfield in the UK, a major force as an educator and teacher to successive generations of photographers & artists.

NOTE: Remember, when we're talking about photographic history, it pays to have a long memory. Current photographic practise allows many photographers to easily shoot film alongside stills due to the capabilities of present day digital cameras (or camera phones.) And also manipulate & print images into a variety of forms or formats. But this is a recent innovation.
Go back more than a decade and you'll find this was less common. Go further back in time and you'll find very few photographers who have successfully explored and innovated in other forms.

Postscript: It did occur to me since posting the original version of this article, that at least one other photographer did make a substantial contribution in both film and still photography. Though in her case, her achievements, such as they are, have been somewhat bypassed in the passage of time, due to the alliances & choices she made during her career. 
The person I'm talking about is Helene Bertha Amalie (better known as Leni Riefenstahl.) 
While she made many films before 1935, it was her documentary/fiction hybrid 'Triumph of the Will' documenting a rally at Nuremberg that sealed her association with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party for all time.
Her work as a photographer, substantial and stylistically fascinating though it may be, fared little better. Her photographic series in particular of tribes in Africa - hinted at questionable links between sexuality and race and Europe's dark colonial past. 

Alexy Brodovitch  (1898 –1971) was born in 1898 Ogolitchi, Russia to a wealthy family. His father among other occupations was a physician and psychiatrist. 
It seems that throughout his childhood, although he had no formal training in art, Alexy Brodovitch was an avid sketcher. sketching audience members at concerts in the city. This is interesting on several counts. While this kind of practise is important to gain first hand experience of what different kinds of faces look like and how emotions are 'written' on faces. It's also true that for young minds, the opportunity to caricature, to lampoon or otherwise satirise individuals by exaggerating the distnguishing characteristics of individuals is often too great to resist. Possibly it was for Brodovitch too?
Sidebar: Certainly, there's ample evidence of his visual wit in many of the layouts of photographs and artworks he created later in his life. Perhaps this early sketching is where his 'voice' began to be formed.

Despite early schooling at Russia, his time in the Russian Army prevented him from taking his interest in art any further, and being able to study at the Imperial Art Academy.

He attended the modest Académie Vassilieff, which gave painting and sculpting classes without an instructor. His connections with these young Russian artists led work as an (artistic) painter of backdrops for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

It's important to note that at this period in France, Paris was a cultural lighting rod, attracting many of the most significant artists and art movements in the early years of the 20th century including Dadaism (originating in Zurich/Berlin) Suprematism &  Constructivism (from Moscow) Bauhaus design (from Germany) Futurism (from Italy) De Stijl (from Holland), and the native strains of Cubism, Fauvism, Purism and Surrealism.
In his spare time, away from the Ballets Russes, Brodovitch began sketching designs for textiles, china, and jewelry. At the completion of his ballet work, his portfolio of side projects was successfully used to sell designs to fashionable shops.

Work as a designer

At the same time, he was working part-time creating layouts for the art journal Cahiers d'Art and Arts et Métiers Graphiques, a design magazine.  As part of laying out the design of pages, Brodovitch was responsible for fitting together type, photographs, and illustrations on the pages of the magazines. Usually, a magazine would have on staff an art director who would be responsible for shaping the overall design direction of the title. Brodovitch found himself in the right place at the right time as there was no art director for these titles so was free to innovate & create as he saw fit.

He gained recognition for his design work, winning first prize in a poster competition for an artists' event 'Le Bal Banal' in 1924. The bold design, inverting the mask shape, type, and background suggest among other ideas, the negative/positive process at the heart of film photography.

Design for Le Bal Banal (1924) by Alexey Brodovitch

He continued to gain recognition as commercial/design artist after success at the Paris International Exhibit of the Decorative Arts in 1925, receiving 5 medals.
It appears that after these wins, he became firmly established as a leading designer.
In 1928 he was hired by Athélia, the design studio of the Paris department store Aux Trois Quartiers, to design and illustrate catalogues and advertisements for their luxury men's boutique, Madelios.

Design for a men's fashion advertisement by Alexey Brodovitch

In addition to working for Athelia, Brodovitch worked as a freelance designer in his free time, starting his own studio, L'Atelier A.B.
He produced posters for a number of clients Union Radio Paris and the Cunard shipping company. He was also commissioned by the Parisian publishing house La Pléiade to illustrate three books: Nouvelles by Alexander Pushkin, Contes Fantastiques by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain.

Even at this relatively early stage in his career, Brodovitch was emerging as a prodigious innovator freely mixing developments in industrial design, photography, and contemporary painting and adding them to his work. And by 32 had produced posters, china, jewelry, textiles, advertisements, and paintings.

While still living in Paris, Brodovitch was offered a job by John Story Jenks, a trustee of the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (currently the University of the Arts.),
Hugely impressed by Brodovitch's talents, he asked him to move to the US and head the school's Advertising Design Department. In September 1930, Brodovitch moved to Philadelphia with his wife and son to take the job. Brodovitch began teaching advertising design, creating a special department devoted to the subject.

The Design Laboratory

In 1933, Brodovitch added the Design Laboratory to the classes he offered. This was intended to be a workshop for his advanced students who wanted to experiment with all aspects of design, using both traditional methods and those advocated by Brodovitch.

Here's his own description of the course:

"The aim of the course is to help the student to discover his individuality, crystallize (his) taste, and develop (his) feeling for the contemporary trend by stimulating (his) sense of invention and perfecting (his) technical ability. 

The course is conducted as an experimental laboratory, inspired by the ever-changing tempo of life, discovery of new techniques, new fields of operation...in close contact with current problems of leading magazines, department stores, advertising agencies and manufactures. 

Subjects include design, layout, type, poster, reportage, illustration, magazine make-up, package and product design, display, styling, art directing"
Brodovitch shared the Bauhaus belief that you needed to educate the whole individual by directing his or her attention to a variety of modern solutions in their graphic projects, rather than over emphasising a narrow range of techniques as a solutions to problems.

As he saw it, Brodovitch's task was to bring the knowledge and practise of Europe's design to the the field of American advertising design. A biting, modern, forward looking approach that was very different to the practises of the typical American design studio at that time.

His approach as a teacher, was also very different to the norm. He would bring into class French and German magazines to examine the pages with his students, explaining the artist's work or technique.
He would raise questions like, "Could this line be better? Could it be like, for example, Cocteau?"

As a teacher, his approach was much closer perhaps to the fine art tradition than to traditional design methodology.
For example, when he took his classes around Philadelphia to see factories, laboratories, shopping centers, housing projects, dumps, or the zoo, he might tell the students to make a "graphic impression" of what they had seen. Whether they made photographs, drawings or abstractions of what they saw it didn't seem to matter to him.
He wanted them to re-discover or find their own fresh personal approach to seeing and making.

Photography and the Design Laboratory

The Design Lab was split into 2 sections per week, one for design and one for photography. 
The workshops were immediately very popular for students. It was not unusual for example for more than 60 people to show up to his class. 

Among the many photographers who attended his classes were Diane ArbusEve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Hiro, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, Leon Levinstein, Louis Faurer and many others.

NOTE: The list of photographers who went on to major careers as innovators following classes with Brodovitch is actually quite staggering.


As if the pace of this work wasn't enough, Brodovitch designed his own typeface in 1949.
"Al-Bro", an abbreviation of his name, has broad and narrow strokes inspired by the symbols of musical notation.

Al-Bro typeface designed by Alexey Brodovitch

A layout showcasing the typeface was included in Portfolio #1 magazine (winter 1950).

Personal Photography

Between 1935 and 1937, Brodovitch photographed a number of ballet companies, including the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, during visits to New York.
Initially regarded by Brodovitch as 'souvenirs', this relatively modest series of photographs evolved into something much more substantial and influential.
In terms of influence, this set of photographs set the tone for the emergence of modern photography as a graphic art, and created a template for a specific style of photographic look that is still in evidence today.

But why are they so important?

Well, for one thing, these photographs deviated completely from the sharply focused, so called 'straight photography' very much in favour at the time.
Published as a book in 1945, titled simply Ballet, through a small New York publisher, the book contains 104 photographs of several ballets and is divided into eleven segments, one for each ballet performance.

On the contents page, Brodovitch prefaces each section in a typographic style that attempts to replicate the dance it is describing. He photographed with a Contax 35mm camera, no flash, and with a slow film speed. Remarkably, given the slow film speed and the lack of additional lighting, the photographs are sensationally evocative.

What's particularly striking is the way the images 'bleed' into the gutter, covering the whole page in a series of stark modulations of black white and grey. The use of spreads also allows a limited narrative to take place on the page for the viewer to follow, in which each photograph can be read as both a separate image and as part of an overall design.

Although the book itself was not widely available for many years (until very recently) it's influence, as a kind of underground classic could be seen almost immediately in the years after the books initial publication, in the work of photographers such as Richard Avedon, Hiro and Irving Penn, and through their work in turn to younger photographers such as David Bailey and Art Kane.

While Brodovitch may not have been the first photographer to reduce the photographic image to essential blacks and whites (Bill Brandt at around the same time in the UK had already started to print and conceive of a 'look' that used harsher contrasts) he almost certainly was the first to conceive of an integrated vision of photography for publication, that harnessed printing techniques, radical layouts and typography to create a unique synthesis of personality and design.

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)
(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)
(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)
(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

Harper's Bazaar

Apart from the influence of his teaching and his personal photography, the other aspect of Alexey Brodovitch's work that has had a lasting influence on photography was his work as the influential Art Director of Harpers Bazaar magazine from 1934-1958.

The new look of Harper's Bazaar emphasized culture for its own sake. Taking advantage of Brodovitch's contacts in Europe and his knowledge of photography, the magazine introduced the work of many artists and photographers new to an American audience including Jean Cocteau, Raoul Dufy, Leonor Fini, Marc Chagall, Man Ray and poster artist A. M. Cassandre.

The Managing Editor of Harper's Bazaar (Frances MacFadden) explained his working method:

"It was a pleasure to watch him work. He was so swift and sure. In emergencies, like the time the Clipper bearing the report of the Paris Collections was held up in Bermuda, his speed was dazzling. A quick splash or two on the cutting board, a minute's juggling of the photostats, a slather of art gum, and the sixteen pages were complete. His layouts, of course, were the despair of copywriters whose cherished tone poems on girdles or minks had to be sacrificed to his sacred white space. Just before we went to press, all the layouts were laid out in sequence on Carmel Snow's floor, and there, under his eye, re-arranged until the rhythm of the magazine suited him."
Typically, Brodovitch would begin his layouts by designing the layouts as illustrations by hand. Photographers and freelance writers were often given little or no direction at all besides to come up with something new and unusual. 
When the photographs for the issue arrived, he would pick the most visually interesting and have a variety of sizes of reproductions made on a photostat machine. 
(NOTE: The photographer Walker Evans - when he worked at Fortune magazine had the same working method, ordering reproductions of photographs at many different sizes.)

From these, each spread would be made one at a time, then arranged among the others to create a well-paced magazine.

The image (below) shows Brodovitch's actual mark-up for a  new layout, with cropping for photographs, borders and placement for text clearly shown.

(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

His style for the magazine was radically different, then and now.
While the vogue for fashion magazines was to show the whole garment, Brodovitch would radically crop images or place them off-center in a layout to bring fresh dynamism to the spread. 

Postscript: It's important to note here, that the revolution in design & layout practise engendered by Brodovitch was not without cost.

He created a precedent, with us to this day, where the work of any photographer could be cropped without mercy in service to the designer, art director or layout artist. 
No photographer was spared. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs, which were featured in Harper's Bazaar, were mercilessly trimmed and re-arranged to fit the dictates of Brodovitch's layouts.

As a photographer, who ensured that his work was printed exactly as photographed without cropping - it must have have seemed an affront or at least a curious treatment of his very exactly framed images.

Notwithstanding his reputation with photographers as a hard taskmaster, as a designer Brodovitch was intensely practical. Aware of the high costs of reproducing color, he used (single) process colours or second color inventively.
He also applied colours that were 'expressive' for pictorial and artistic effect (rather than for literal description.)  

Among the devices he used sparing in his layouts were: adding film sprocket borders to photographs,  using type and photographs to create multiple perspectives within a space, mirroring and doubling images and also also pairing similar pictures on a spread or dividing halves of one image across the gutter of the page.

A selection of the many powerful and creative spreads he made during his tenure at Harper's Bazaar follows:

Erwin Blumenfeld (photograph)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

Richard Avedon  (photographs)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

Lisette Model  (photographs)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

Richard Avedon  (photograph)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

David Douglas Duncan (photographs)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

Helen Levitt  (photographs)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

Bill Brandt (photographs)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

Martin Munkasi (photographs)
(copyright Harper's Bazaar/Condé Nast/respective rights owners)

The later years of Brodovitch's life were plagued by ill health and depression brought about by the death of his wife, Nina. 
Brodovitch was sent to a number of hospitals to cure his worsening depression and alcoholism. In 1960 he was confined to Ward's Island in 1960, home to several public facilities, including The New York State Office of Mental Health Manhattan Psychiatric Center and Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center (which serves the criminally insane and is patrolled by the New York State Office of Mental Health Police. During one visit, a former student of his gave him a small Minox camera to use
Slipping the camera into a cigarette box, he discretely began to photograph his fellow patients. 

These photographs, his last fragile work are fascinating. Blurry, indistinct, they hint at not only the physicality of his surroundings but also his own state of mind and that of his fellow patients.

They deserve a wider audience.

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

(copyright Alexey Brodovitch/respective copyright owners)

With no pension or regular paycheck from Harper's Bazaar, Brodovitch was faced with mounting hospital bills. 
In 1966, Brodovitch fell and broke his hip. Physically & financially fragile, he moved back to France with his son Nikita to be closer to his many relatives.Two years later, he relocated a small village even closer to his family in Avignon. He died three years later at age 73.

(copyright respective original copyright owners)

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thelastedition said...

Was a pleasure to read about such a great designer. What a sad ending to such an illustrious career.