[Brodovitch's Ballet] spat in the face of technique and pointed out a new way in which photographers could work. - Irving Penn
Alexey Brodovitch's impact on the history of 20th century art and design is so profound and extensive that the word legendary is invariably attached to his name. As an art director, photographer and teacher, he has influenced nearly every major photographer of the last half of the past century. While serving as art director of Harper's Bazaar for over 25 years, from the the 1930s through the 1950s, he worked on independent projects, such as designing the important photographic books, Day of Paris by André Kertész and Observations, by Richard Avedon and creating his own magazine of graphic design, Portfolio. Meanwhile he taught popular workshops he called the Design Laboratory that moved to various venues from the New School for Social Research to photographer's studios such as that of Paul and Karen Radkai. As a designer and a teacher, he virtually changed the way magazines look through an emphasis on the bold graphic use of typography and innovative photography that broke traditional standards of quality.
Brodovitch was equally imposing as a personality. Raised in a wealthy Russian family, he fought in the White Russian Army in the First World War. He spent the 1920s in Paris where he designed and painted sets for Diaghelev's Ballet Russe in addition to designing posters and even the building for the department store, Aux Trois Quartiers. He came to the U.S. initially to teach at the Philadelphia Museum School in the 1930s and soon moved to Harper's Bazaar.
Having made photographs since he was ten, his only concentrated body of work was made of performances from 1935 to 1937 of his beloved Ballet Russe de Monaco. They are gathered together in the book of his own design Ballet and issued in 1945 in no more than 500 copies. It is one of the rarest and most sought after photographic books.
Original prints are supremely rare. All but a few negatives and a handful of contact sheets were destroyed in two subsequent fires at his homes. His contribution to photography was noted at the time of the book's publication by critic Bruce Downes, 'Instead of shooting fast, he shoots slow. In so doing he violates the old rules which say that you must shoot at high speeds if your subjects are in motion. Instead of stopping ballet action in crisp, sharply outlined images, he allows motion itself to 'brush' over his film. Brodovitch is more interested in the fluidity than the sculpture, in the dance than the dancers. ... The strange atmospheric effects, the shimmering qualities, the extraordinary sense of movement justify the means Brodovitch employs. The distortions are not so excessive as to lose their ballet identity. Indeed, if anything, the qualities of ballet--the rhythms, fantasy, grace and intensity--are heightened even as they are partially abstracted from the actuality. The bodies of the dancers in motion brush themselves in broad masses of light and shadow on Brodovitch's film. The sense of movement appears thus to be emphasized in the blurred figures. Most of the pictures were shot backstage where Brodovitch made effective use of halations by shooting against footlights, spots and floods, creating an unreal atmosphere of fantasy, certainly not violating the intrinsic nature of ballet which deals with imagery and music. ... If he wished a pale delicate print he used chemical reduction. He dodged and printed in and then he had no hesitancy in using an airbrush for further alterations. Many of these pictures were enlarged from very small sections of 35 mm negatives. Sometimes he had to make as many as fifty prints before he got exactly the effect he wanted. He utilized the always inevitable graininess and scratches." (Downes, 'Brodovitch and Ballet,' Popular Photography, vol. 17, no. 3, September 1945, pp. 31, 34.) Many of the innovations of post-war photography such as expressive use of blur, grain and glare attributed to Robert Frank and William Klein can be traced back to Brodovitch's Ballet.
The present and following four lots were gifts from Brodovitch to Paul and Karen Radkai. They have been in their collection for decades. Fortunately, for the history of photography, these exquisite prints escaped the fires that consumed Brodovitch's homes.
(The Irving Penn quote on this page is from: Reynolds, 'Brodovitch on Brodovitch,' Popular Photography, vol. 49, no. 6, December 1961, pp. 80-87.)