Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Becoming a Fanatik

E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s

by Phillip Prodger
Photographs by E. O. Hoppé
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., August 27, 2007
176 pages/hardcover/78 photographs/$49.95

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

The industrial photographs of modernist photographer E. O. Hoppé had unfortunately slipped under my radar until our erudite editor of ASPP's The Picture Professional, Niki Barrie, sent E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s into my welcoming hands.

On further research, it was a bit comforting to find I was not alone in missing out on Hoppé significant contributions in the recording of our nation. It seems his images were not remembered as well as the works of other photographers in this modernist genre that I learned he clearly influenced: Stieglitz, Weston and Evans.

Sadly, for years, Hoppé’s images were abandoned to locked archives in England and Germany. Now, some eighty years later, Hoppé’s work, referred to by historians as the missing link between the Edwardian and the Modern eras of history and photography, is celebrated in this long overdue tribute.

When he arrived in America in 1919 from London (he was born in Germany of French and Austrian heritage), Hoppé was just about the most famous photographer in the world. He had also recently turned 40 and well knew that commercial photography—mostly long portrait sessions for the aristocracy—would bring him opportunities in the new world.

Once landed, there was a big country calling him. Soon enough, he seized the day to leave his studios to wander about the country. It’s tempting to jump past the introduction to linger upon Hoppé’s individual images (called Plates in this volume), but note: it is imperative to return to the opening text to fully appreciate Hoppé.

There is so much to discover about this forgotten and fascinating modernist pioneer photographer. Renowned art and photography historian Phillip Prodger worked meticulously to pen a compelling introduction for Amerika, giving frank and entertaining details about Hoppé’s background, methods and motivations.

Since his fame was as a portraitist, the book’s image section begins with character studies—not of his highbrow clients—but rather of the immigrants and skid-row tramps of Manhattan. Once his journeying had started, Hoppé became interested in the industrial structures of the city.

Featured next are odd-angled views of the Brooklyn Bridge and street scenes emphasizing steel and hardware. The images in Amerika continue by page revealing a new portfolio as the photographs lead us into Hoppé’s exploration of the country to Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, Detroit, Los Angeles, and beyond.

In one spread, a railway station in Boston shot in 1926 is teamed with New York’s Grand Central Station captured in 1921. The grabbing points are large grid patterns, light-pouring windows and steam streaks. These locations give the impression of being more modern than historical, possibly because travel in this country has changed in the present century. Side-by-side, these two photographs fling to the eye hints of past and future ghosts.

At the forefront of another image, an expanded American flag atop the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami begs to be the focal point. But even Old Glory is secondary to several crows hanging out on the roof’s guardrail and a repeating peak pattern of the architecture. This picture has been ideally framed. Hoppé’s talent in that regard is exemplified throughout the book.

Portraits creep back into the mix as the book continues. These are of common men from Utah, Texas and Tennessee. He presents Native Americans as sad, not proud. Unlike his previous stylized sitting portraits, these candid frames signify an emerging industrial nation through the faces of the people attempting to build what had never been built before.

Hoppé shows America’s quirky flipsides, too, and Amerika is evidence that he didn’t shoot what he was told would be “interesting.” An image of Universal City with vintage cars, cowboys on horseback, and film crew milling around on a quaint western town set looks...well, quaint. Next is a shot of the same Hollywood studio’s backlot, where carcasses of vintage cars are junk piled and scraps of lumber from saloon facades have been thrown into heaps.

Hoppé’s phenomenal effort and inner passion to document the unknown country results in this newly discovered preservation of the 1920s. Amerika features waterfronts and Army fields, mailboxes and immigrant stores, oil fields and electrical pylons, and Indians and National Parks. It also delivers the grandeur of Hoppé. His fans (now I’m one), can thank those who knew the importance of rummaging around in these particular forgotten boxes.

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