'Henri Dauman: Looking Up': Film Review

Courtesy of Henri Dauman/daumanpictures.com
A fascinating portrait of the man behind the camera.

Peter Kenneth Jones' documentary chronicles the life and career of the photojournalist who captured celebrated images of many of the 20th century's most iconic figures.

Unless you're a diehard photography buff, you probably don't know the name Henri Dauman. But you almost certainly have seen his pictures. A leading photojournalist whose work has been seen by millions of readers of Life magazine and many other publications, Dauman took celebrated pictures of a who's who of pivotal figures of the 20th century, including John and Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Elvis Presley and countess others. But his work wasn't always celebrity-driven, as demonstrated by his documenting of such events as the self-immolation of Buddhist priests in Vietnam and the Castro revolution. The celebrated photographer's life and career is the subject of Peter Kenneth Jones' fascinating documentary Henri Dauman: Looking Up, which recently received its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

The film benefits greatly from the constant presence of its subject (the father of former Viacom chief Philippe Dauman), who is as engaging in front of the camera as he is masterful behind it. The now 85-year-old Dauman provides a running commentary throughout, recounting his story with a youthful optimism that the years and many personal travails haven't dimmed. When he was just a youngster growing up in Paris during the war, his father was arrested by French police and sent to a concentration camp, where he perished. Henri and his mother survived by hiding in a house in the French countryside. But shortly after their return to the city when he was 13 years old, she died suddenly after ingesting bicarbonate purchased from a pharmacy, unaware that the establishment had procured it on the black market. It actually was poison. The film includes scenes of Dauman revisiting both the rural house and urban apartment while he provides harrowing details of the episodes. There are also excerpts from a videotaped interview conducted 20 years ago, in which he describes his experiences of the Holocaust.

Dauman found solace in his teenage years by going to the movies, and now credits American and French cinema with greatly influencing his future work. He took up photography without any formal training and was soon taking pictures for a variety of European magazines. He eventually made his way to America and received his first assignment for Life in 1959. He hasn't stopped since.

"He knows how to talk to people," a journalist comments about Dauman. The truthfulness of that statement is evidenced by the many photos shown throughout the documentary. They display an uncanny ability to capture celebrities during their most intimate moments and at their most emotionally expressive. Dauman says that he spent more time talking with his subjects than he did photographing them, in order to put them at ease. He also admits that he is known to be a perfectionist. "I have broken many an assistant," he says, almost proudly.

Much of the documentary revolves around a Paris museum exhibition of his photographs, the first ever devoted to his work. Dauman says that he found it a revelation to be seeing his photographs displayed on a wall rather than on the pages of a magazine. "I never considered it art," he says of his work. But he clearly enjoys the adulation. "My God, I'm a rock star!" he exults. A curator comments about Dauman's career, "He was always in the right place at the right time."

Produced by Dauman's granddaughter, Nicole Suerez, the documentary is perhaps a little too personal in its focus. Other than a few random observations about such things as his propensity for backlighting his subjects for dramatic effect, there's not enough analysis of Dauman's technique and working methods. Henri Dauman: Looking Up proves a moving portrait of the man, but it would have benefited from being a bit more exhaustive about his work. 

Production company: Nocturnal Media, Good Wizard, Piramide Productions
Director: Peter Kenneth Jones
Producers: Kerri Borsuk, Peter Kenneth Jones, Will Keesee, Roland Smith, Nicole Suerez, Glen Zipper
Executive producer: Bobby Campbell
Director of photography: Roland Smith
Composer: Olivier "Dax" Ruel

86 minutes