During the second and third decades of the 20th century, E. O. Hoppé was one of the world's best — and maybe the best — known photographers, and now he is virtually unknown, all but forgotten except by photohistorians and his grandson, Michael Hoppé. (Mr. Hoppé has a link on his Web site with information about his venerable grandsire.) "E.O. Hoppé's Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s," the current exhibition at Silverstein Photography, and a book by the same name being published this month by W. W. Norton, should help rehabilitate his reputation: Hoppé has a chance for a second go-around with fame.
Emil Otto Hoppé was born in Munich, Germany, in 1878, the son of a banker, and educated in Munich, Paris, and Vienna. He worked in banking, married, settled in London, and became increasingly involved in photography. Finally, in 1907, he left his job at the London Stock Exchange and opened a portrait studio. His success as a portraitist was immediate and immense. It is hard to think of anyone of importance in politics, art, literature, and theater whom he did not shoot. He did the frontispiece portrait of Henry James for the 1917 edition of his novel "The Ivory Tower." He shot T.S. Eliot in 1919, three years before the publication of "The Waste Land." His portraits of women — actresses, royalty, writers, fashion models, socialites — were published in newspapers and magazines. He exhibited internationally and won awards.
After the World War I, Hoppé began to travel and produce books of photographs based on his travels. Again, he was immensely successful; eventually there were more than 30 books, many quite stunning. This includes the one he did for publisher Orbis Terrarum of his views of America; the pictures at Silverstein are from this body of work. Hoppé was a sophisticated man with catholic interests. He went everywhere, and if he shot obvious tourist sites such as "The Capital, Washington, D.C." (all photos are 1926 unless noted otherwise), he also took such oddments as "Gas Station, ‘The Girl Behind the Pump,' Los Angeles, California." The pictures are of continuing visual and historic interest.
The prints at Silverstein are small, ranging in size from 4 inches by 3 inches to 9 1/2 inches by 7 1/2 inches, and remind us yet again that a work's dimensions have little correlation with its impact. Many of these pictures are simply beautiful, although, of course, beauty is rarely simple. "‘L' at Third Avenue, New York, New York" (1921) relies on the combination of the careful placement of the camera in juxtaposition with the train's support beams and the light spilling out of the side street to achieve a trompe l'oeil sense of depth. In "Paradise Valley, Washington, D.C." the roofs of the uniform tents are so carefully aligned as to created an almost comic geometric pattern, the humor dampened by the dull, hazy light. The head-on view of "Railroad Bridge, Key West, Florida" and the "Sun Patterns on Cobblestones, New York, New York" (1921) are examples of high modernism, art reduced to geometry and abstraction.
One gets a sense of both resonance and anticipation when viewing these pictures; some look back to earlier photographers and some look ahead. Silverstein highlights this aspect of Hoppé's work by having a small room with a few such related images. There are two by Eugène Atget of "Tuileries-Statue par Gateux" (1911–12) that may have inspired the direct approach Hoppé used on a series of five wooden figures outside tobacco shops in New York. And in turn, Hoppé's view of narrow "William Street" (1921) may have influenced Berenice Abbott when she shot her even narrower "Exchange Place" a decade later.
Hoppé's "Gas Station," as well as "Hotel Torino, Los Angeles, California," consider themes that later would be important to Walker Evans. Several pictures of the "Ford Factory, Detroit, Michigan" prepare us for Charles Sheeler's classic photos of the same plant a year later. Conversely, the backlit scurrying figures in "La Salle Street, Chicago, Illinois" put us in mind of the backlit scurrying figures in Paul Strand's "Wall Street" taken a decade earlier. And many other crosscurrents of influence and inspiration come to mind. Hoppé consciously strove to be important in the development of photography as an artistic medium; as such, he took what he needed from the past and left many avenues of approach open for others to explore.
As varied as Hoppé's work is, its unifying characteristic is his clarity of intent; he always seems to know what he's about. The inclusion of the dimly seen car radiator in the foreground of "Hollywood at Night, Los, Angeles, California" not only adds a sense a depth, but a feeling of noirish glamour. Having a low horizon in "East River, New York, New York" (1925), a view from the bay approaching the ferry terminals, intimates the majesty and extent of the city. The lone figure, so diminutive, at the base of "Reservoir, New York, New York" dramatizes its scale. All of this suggests something more than mere competence.
Hoppé wrote his autobiography "Hundred Thousand Exposures" in 1945, and then faded from view. The photohistorian Helmut Gernsheim reported that he died in 1967, but in 1971, Bill Jay found him alive in a nursing home, although in constant pain from a back injury. At Jay's suggestion, Sir Cecil Beaton petitioned the Royal Photographic Society to award Hoppé the Honorary Fellowship the old man so badly wanted. It was conferred a month or so before he died, in 1973 at age 95.
E.O. Hoppé's career is due for a reappraisal.
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