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If you were famous in the middle part of the 20th century, odds are Henri Dauman took your picture. Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s funeral, Andy Warhol peeking from behind a giant box of Brillo, a near-naked Brigitte Bardot lounging in bed on a film set in France — as a Life magazine photographer through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Dauman (the father of former Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman) snapped just about anybody who was anybody, and usually in more intimate ways than they’d been snapped before.
Dauman’s granddaughter, Nicole Suerez, a costume pro on such films as 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight, is producing a documentary about his life and work, Henri Dauman: Looking Up. But 64 of his most famous photographs are on display now at his first-ever U.S. exhibition, April 28 to May 12 at KP Projects in Los Angeles (prices for his work range from $1,950 to $7,250). THR spoke to the veteran shutterbug, now 85, about his relationship with Bardot (just friends), the time he spent a week on a train with Elvis (they ate sandwiches) and what exactly it is that makes for a truly great photograph.
You’ve photographed an amazing amount of history. Did you realize it at the time? Did you know you were assembling a chronicle of the 20th century?
No, not at all. I knew some of the stuff I was doing was historical, but I didn’t know it would add up to a chronicle of all the major events that have moved the U.S. forward. Life sent me all over the world, from the Mediterranean to JFK’s funeral to shooting Andy Warhol, who was then unknown. I just went from one story to another, but they were not that different to me because I always looked through things with the same cinematic eye.
Your pictures are very cinematic — where did you pick that up?
When I was a young child growing up in Paris [where he was orphaned at 13, after his parents were killed in the Holocaust], I saw all the film noir movies. And that’s what inspired my photography. Before working at Life, when I was 18 or 19, I sold a big layout on Marilyn Monroe in Paris. And then I shot Jane Fonda for an Italian magazine. I was beating out all these Life magazine photographers — Life would send three or four teams of photographers to Paris to try to get different thing and here I was, this little guy, getting all these pictures. So that’s how, in 1958, I got a call to do my first assignment for Life.
Was access to the stars easier back then? Setting up a photo shoot nowadays is like negotiating a North Korean nuclear treaty.
It’s interesting that you say that. When I photographed Elvis Presley in 1960, right after he got back from the Army, I had direct access to him and Col. Parker. I rode in the train with Elvis all the way from Fort Dix in New Jersey to Graceland. It was so interesting to see all the girls running by and screaming and crying. And I was there with him, eating sandwiches and laughing. At that time, there was no wall between the photographer and the star. But then, after I finished that shoot, it was as if a kind of curtain came down. This was the start of publicists getting involved. You didn’t have direct access to celebrities anymore. Before then, it was unheard of for a publicist to say, “I’m not going to do this shoot unless you give my client the cover.” It’s was much more informal.
What changed, do you think?
It became more commercial. The stars and publicists started to see the value of all this publicity.
A lot of the people you shot weren’t famous at the time — although some of them later on became very famous. I’m thinking of that assignment you got from a French fashion magazine to shoot a “typical American girl.”
Yes, to find her I decided to go to Barnard college and look through all the student IDs. And behold, I take out this one ID and there is a beautiful blond girl of Polish descent. Her name was Martha Kostyra. The school told me she was interested in fashion. So I met with her and stayed with her for maybe a week, shooting her all over New York. She represented the typical American girl. And then, a few years later, she married a book publisher named Andrew Stewart and she became Martha Stewart. So I guess I am to blame for that one.
I want to ask you about Brigitte Bardot. There are some pictures of the two of you together, with her in bed fondling your camera equipment. And then you ended up naming your daughter Brigitte. What exactly was the nature of your relationship with Bardot?
No, I just took pictures of her, on the set of the Louis Malle’s A Very Private Affair in Paris and Italy. But I was so enthused with her beauty that I decided to name my soon-to-be-born daughter Brigitte. She was doing a scene naked in bed — she was kind of under the sheets but you could still see parts of her. And between shots she was getting bored so she called me over and asked me about my lenses. I happened to have a long 180mm lens with me, so she looked at it and a picture of us got taken by a friend of mine who happened to be on the set at the time.
Who, in your vast experience, has been the single most difficult star to photograph?
Oh, nobody. Nobody was difficult.
I am a different breed of photographer. I had the gift of gab and was able to talk to celebrities. Their PR person would say, “They’ve got 30 minutes,” but our session would expand for hours, if not days, after we got talking. I charmed them.
What makes a great photograph?
When you capture the real person and not a movie image. When the person is shown as themselves so we can tell the real story. There’s always true moments of complicity, when they show themselves as human beings. That was always what I strived for. To tell the story of another human being.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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