"Paris 1938": A Story in Pictures for Life Magazine
By Fritz Henle
This journal article first appeared in 1989 in the Harry Ransom Center's The Library Chronicle.
Fifty years ago, in July 1938, I sailed on the British liner "Mauretania" from New York to Le Havre with the assignment to create photographs of "Life in Paris." Two years earlier, in September 1936, I had arrived in New York on the huge new liner "Europa," the fastest ship racing across the Atlantic. For me it was now a race with time, since I had only two weeks in which to complete my task. When I suggested in the summer of 1938 that I be sent to Paris, I knew that my object would be to show the people of this great city in a time of tension amidst the forebodings of a terrible tyranny facing them across the border of their country. I was certain that such circumstances would result in a colorful picture-story, and I was determined not to disappoint my editors at Life. In the end it was they who disappointed me.
Since 1928 I had considered myself a full-fledged photographer and the doors to the world stood open before me, even though I was young and my great desire to spend my life with a camera found little support. Soon, however, I managed to get myself accepted in the famous "Bayerische Staatslehranstalt fϋr Lichtbildwesen," located in Schwabing, the well-known artist center of Munich. I arrived with a large black portfolio of photographs, a collection which I had created as an autodidact. In my hometown of Dortmund I had built myself a tiny darkroom in the basement of our house under the musicroom, and with great perseverance and devotion and while listening frequently to the most beautiful sounds of classical music (my father, a famous surgeon, was also the director of the philharmonic society and many great artists were our guests and rehearsed before their concerts), I had produced a set of photographs, which I was able to show to the young and enthusiastic teacher, who received me at the door on Clemens-Strasse 33.
All odds were against me, sincere there were already many more young people applying for the courses that the school could accept. However, in order not to discourage me completely, this beautiful teacher, who had introduced herself as Frau Hanna Seewald, asked me to open my portfolio. When she looked at my photographs she grew very silent and after some time she said, "We cannot take you into the first class." It took all my courage to reply, "Then take me into the second class. In the first class I will only have to repeat what I have taught myself already. "My determination impressed her and she suggested that I see the director. When we left his office the battle had been won. It was an unheard-of-victory. The next day I calmly entered the second class.
I still had a long way to go before I would become a photographer for Life in the very early years of this famous magazine. After my years in Florence and Italy, I was sent by the Lloyd Triestino organization to India in 1934 and a year later to China and Japan. My first book, This Is Japan, was nearly finished in September 1936 when I left Germany for the last time with the assignment to create a similar volume to be devoted to the "United States of America." This book, however, never materialized, but when I found myself engaged by Life I was confronted by new and fascinating challenges. My photographic essays on "New York—52nd Street" and "Thomas Jefferson High School" in San Antonio, Texas, were great hits and the editors were happy to be able to rely on my concepts and my independence. After these large photo essays had been published, I suggested in the summer of 1938 that they send me to Paris. Only a few days later I found myself on the way.
As soon as I arrived, my determination not to disappoint my editors found its echo in my fascination with the city. It was the first week in July and Paris was full of life, a life full of surprises and events beyond my imagination. I was a newcomer and I could only sense the importance of the innumerable images before my eyes. I was alone and though there was a Life office, there seemed to be nobody ready to advise me. I was not astonished, for I had been alone on all the assignments in my young career. So I decided to become myself part of the life of Pairs. The city's inhabitants seemed to accept me, the young man with the little box, with two lenses hanging from his neck. If ecstasy can be prolonged, then my two weeks in Paris were frequently consumed by such a wonderful sensation. There was the Seine and the old river-steamer, whose captain conversed with me hardly realizing that my knowledge of French was rather limited. There were the three housewives sitting on a bench interrupted in their gossip as if they had been waiting to have their picture taken by me. I had only to walk a few minutes and a new scene would open up before my eyes. There was the portal to Notre Dame with the two men sitting on a bench in front, having nothing better to do. Les Halles, the huge market, announced itself from a distance by its noise and its many smells—a crazy mixture of cheeses and fruits and all the other palatable items for the French kitchen. Men were cutting up great wheels of cheese. A young market-woman was humming a sweet melody. Another one looked majestic, like a well-known yet forgotten dowager.
Then there was music: I was drawn to it around the corners of some narrow streets. There was the organ-grinder with his performing monkey. The audience was delighted. All windows and doors had opened and it seemed to me as if the people had joined just for me in the performance of the monkey and its proud owner, the organ-grinder. Their faces expressed a kaleidoscope of emotions. To behold this scene with my camera was a challenge full of excitement and equally of joy, since I myself became part of the performance. On Bastille Day I had this same intimate sensation. Music was everywhere; people danced in the street and the cafes were even more crowded than usual. A chanteuse tried to charm her audience with some sexy songs, but she herself seemed to enjoy them best. To have her picture taken was the flattery of day! (There were few small cameras hanging from people's shoulders in 1938!)
After a hectic Bastille Day, I found myself on a quiet Sunday morning walking up to Montmartre. A priest passed me, unaware of the colorful pictures painted on the wall. Two tired-looking cadets from St. Cyr were finally on their way home. Going through the Louvre garden I encountered the woman resting on a chair under the monument to a Roman god, who was made of stone yet seemed alive through the repetition of his pose. In the the Jardin de Luxembourg two women under an umbrella were engaged in a gossipy conversation and in another quartier I found Mme. Niska, the fortune teller, trying to convince a passerby of the unfailing power of her art to unveil the destinies of unhappy souls. I was tempted to pay her some francs and ask her about the success of my story. I never would have believed her and the true story turned out to be too much of a disappointment. Also, my time was terribly limited. I had only two weeks in Paris and I still wanted to go to see the races at Longchamps and, of course, I could not miss Versailles.
Whom did I meet under the Tribune at Longchamps but Baron de Rothchild, talking to a jockey. At the time I had no idea who the gentleman was. In 1945 when I looked through my Paris collection with Alexey Brodovitch, the famous art director of Harper's Bazaar, he exclaimed, "This is Baron de Rothchild." A famous name indeed. The officer in his shiny helmet trying to get the attention of the lady in the latest fashion in white was a quickly conceived image, a possibility that my Rolleiflex could capture within the fraction of a second. Coming to the other side of Longchamps, I was delighted by its rather picturesque contrasting scene. People standing on the fragile little chairs, trusting their weight to the dangerous chance of a collapse. An old couple sitting on the steps in the heat of the July afternoon. An old man leaning against his vintage Renault. This side of Longchamps reminded me of Central Park in New York on a sweltering summer day. Quite a different impression from the top-hats and the ladies showing off their latest fashions a hundred meters across the race track.
My time in Paris in July 1938 was a happy one. I had chosen to stay in a small hotel in Montparnasse, quite simple, with a rickety elevator, which carried me to my little room with bath on the top floor, from which I could look out over the old roofs and chimneys. And it was summer, the windows were open. Not far away a young woman fed her little pet canary, which never seemed to tire of filling the neighborhood with its song, a lovely ode to beauty fitting perfectly into my surroundings. I examined the tiny bathroom, which at night had to serve me as my darkroom. It worked out well and with the simple people around me I felt immediately at home. But to develop my Kodak 120-roll-films in a bathtub was not exactly easy. I had decided not to waste any time engaging a lab. Fifty years ago it was difficult to find one. Photography was still a craft, which one had to master oneself and I never had trusted anybody else to develop my precious films. I bought three 11 x 14 trays, mixed my chemicals, and after having spent some busy days photographing the "Life in Paris" started to process my first batch of negatives.
It must have been midnight and only a very dim green light gave me the necessary direction. I was bent over the old bathtub, which held my three trays. My developing technique was rather unorthodox, but having applied it for many years I had become a virtuoso at handling six films at a time by clipping their ends together with a metal clip. The trays were filled with sufficient developer, short-stop, and hypo, so that my 120-size roll-films were easily submerged. With great care, the films, now clipped together at both ends like an elongated "U," were turned around in the solution one after the other in practically complete darkness. To bend over the bathtub for six minutes seemed an eternity! But in the excitement of awaiting to see my images appear quite faintly on the backs of my films, I never noticed the strain on my back. The dim green light was so faint that only with my trained eyes could I make the decision that I had arrived at the perfect stage of development. The hands on my watch, which I kept away from the film indicated six minutes had passed, the time when the development had reached the decisive stage. From then on it was to my final judgment, but rarely did I have to add many more seconds to reach the point where I felt I would have my ideal negatives.
One night, however, I almost met with disaster in my makeshift darkroom. Hardly were my six rolls submerged in the developer than I found myself in total darkness. I had to count the seconds, count the minutes, and time became an eternity. Carefully I went through my procedures until I finally decided to wash my films in the basin above the tub for what seemed to me one hour. My little hotel must have seen the times of Daguerre. However, by being so old-fashioned, it also had great charm. During that night I did not mind too much the ancient elevator, the creaky yet comfortable furniture, and the bathtubs that were not so inconvenient to less demanding clients like myself. I was more worried about my precious films and anxiously awaited the light of day. How elated I was! When I held the films with 12 exposures each against the light through my window, the negatives were perfect.
I was so absorbed in creating my story about "Life in Paris" that I almost missed my return passage to New York. With great pride and anticipation of a beautiful spread in the magazine, I turned the results of my efforts over to the picture department. The two weeks in Paris had seemed like two months to me and my collection of photographs surpassed anything I could have imagined. My editors, however, thought differently and when they returned my images and negatives to me I felt crushed. It was the greatest disappointment of my then young career. But in July 1938 I was of course not prepared for the wonderful developments of later years. I felt hurt but not defeated. I believed that time would tell.
For many years the negatives and prints were locked away in the steel file of my hideaway; my little studio and darkroom at 667 Madison Avenue. I never looked at my Paris pictures again. When I thought of their rejection it was like a physical pain. But then this changed overnight in August 1944, when De Gaulle marched with his troops on Paris to liberate the city. Mme. Lazareff, the picture editor of The New York Times, called me in the late afternoon and asked if I had ever been in Paris. Reluctantly I replied: "Yes in July 1938, but what does this have to do with the news that your General De Gaulle will liberate Paris within a few days?" As a French lady and the wife of the publisher of the Paris Soir, Mme. Lazareff insisted on seeing my photographs and all through the night I made a set of one hundred new 8 x 10 enlargements. The old prints I did not like anymore and with great determination I managed to keep my 10 o'clock appointment the next day. Mme. Lazareff received me immediately at West 43rd Street and I spread my pictures out on her large desk. I will never forget how this lovely lady broke into tears. I myself had quite a time keeping my composure. The following Sunday my pictures of Paris were on four pages of The New York Times Magazine. They made quite a hit. Alexey Brodovitch published one of my images—"Mme. Niska" —in a full-page spread in Harper's Bazaar and when he saw my complete collection in 1945, he became so impressed that he decided to make the layout for my book Paris, which was published in 1947.
Since then more than forty years have passed and my pictures were almost forgotten. But I was fortunate and never gave up in believing them. I was convinced that time would tell. While working on my archive in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, I came across my Paris collection. More than one hundred of these images are now in the Ransom Center's Photography Collection and the "Paris 1938" show, with about one hundred of these photographs, will have its vernissage first in the museum of Dortmund, Germany, during the celebration of my birthday on June 9th. From there it will travel to other museums in Germany and France during the 150-year celebrations in 1989 of "The Year of Photography." Fifty years have passed since I created my Paris pictures, and even though they were forgotten, my believe that time would tell never failed me.
Heidelberg, July 1988
Fritz Henle: In Search of Beauty celebrates the art of freelance American photographer Fritz Henle (1909-1993)
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