Finding himself orphaned after World War II, Henri Dauman, born in Montmartre in 1933, boarded the S.S. Liberté with his camera and set off alone to join his American uncle in December 1950. He was just 17. The astute young man spoke little English but became a correspondent for the newspaper France-Amérique. “I took pictures of visiting political and cultural figures and chronicled the life of the French community of New York,” he says.
Dauman transformed his kitchen into a dark room, reporting by day and developing by night, before mailing his photos to French and American publications. Defining himself as a “one-man agency,” he demanded total freedom in his work and even had the luxury of refusing a permanent job at the prestigious Life Magazine. As a creative spirit, Dauman innovated constantly. “While working for the New York Times supplement, which back then was printed on poor-quality, gray paper, I had the idea of installing an electric flash behind my subjects to illuminate their portraits so they would come out better when printed.” This technique is now used extensively by photographers the world over.
Photographer to the Stars
Throughout his long career, Dauman collected several hundred photo portraits. An impressive gallery ranging from the Paris elite to Hollywood actors. Reinventing the concept of natural glamor without affected poses, he captured the sensual gaze of Liz Taylor, the panache of Marilyn Monroe, the intensity of Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot in a backless dress (he also starred with the actress in Louis Malle’s 1962 movie A Very Private Affair, in which he played a photographer), Elvis Presley’s elegant attitude, Miles Davis’ energy, Yves Saint-Laurent’s class, Alain Delon’s youthful good looks, and Jean-Luc Godard’s surprisingly tender stare.
In this race for images, Dauman also stood out through his bold framing techniques, and personally managed the staging of his shoots. The experimental artist loved taking photo sequences – series of cinematic shots that create the impression of live action. One of his finest in this vein features Liz Taylor hypnotized before the boxing match between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson in New York in 1960. This daring won over the Americans, and his work was published Newsweek, the New York Times, and above all Life, for whom he became the star photographer in 1958. Some of his photos, influenced by pop art, went on to inspire other masters such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Aside from celebrities, this tireless street photographer was also behind fabulous reports that captured bohemian life in Greenwich Village the harsh realities of the Bronx, Black America, the Civil Rights Movement, and the excessive dimensions of the local architecture. In 1963, the MoMA in New York acquired his series on American architecture, Looking Up, which portrays the restructuring of the city at a time of major urban development. Dauman’s technique and instinct is combined with his particular perspective of a Frenchman fascinated by the modernity of post-war America in the midst of widespread change.
Half a Century of American History
As a unique witness to a country that welcomed him with open arms, Dauman still owns an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York, thousands of negatives, just as many contact sheets, and hundreds of photos from the past. In total, this represented half a century of American history lying dormant in boxes – a treasure trove unearthed in the documentary Looking Up, directed by Peter Kenneth Jones and produced by Nicole Suerez, his partner and Dauman’s granddaughter. This was accompanied by a traveling exhibition under the same name, first presented in spring 2018 in Los Angeles and in Atlanta in September 2019.
Dauman “never considered his photographs as works of art; they lived on double-page spreads in magazines, not in galleries,” said his granddaughter in an interview with The Times of Israel. Both at the heart and on the fringes of history, he portrayed the transformation of American society almost “by accident.” As Dauman himself told France-Amérique in 2015, “I was lucky enough to shoot a series of reports that, by the end, showed the changes at work in the United States. I was not aware of it at the time; I was simply swept up in it all.”