Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street at the National Portrait Gallery

We’re being sold E O Hoppé as a missing link in British photography – an inter-war studio and street photographer who straddled the formality of Edwardian society photography as well as venturing amongst the working classes, foreigners and immigrants. Hoppé is seen as the connecting thread, as well as a diverse and significant photographer in his own right. After this exhibition I’m not entirely convinced.

This seems to be a partial survey – a glimpse at greatness. It’s as if in attempting to rescue from (so I understand) obscurity they have put too much of Hoppé into too small a space to allow us to see his strengths. There are selections from his studio work, some shots from his many foreign travels, images from his collection of ‘fair women’, a wall of his ‘types’ and a goodly bunch of street and working class images.

If you’ve walked round London with your eyes open you’ll have seen his portrait of the child in full Pearly King garb – that formalised approach of being both outside and open to the elements but also controlling the shot is a recurring theme. The cabbies enjoying their tea may not have been posed (or they may have been – the exhibition is frustratingly vague on the technical aspects of Hoppé’s work) but they line up nicely across the frame. There are many enjoyable outdoor shots – my personal favourite being the man in silhouette next to the advert at the now-closed British Museum underground station. Where Hoppé is less in control – for example with a 35mm on Regents Street – the results aren’t as convincing and in so small a collection I wonder why they are included.

The studio images capture the great, the good and the interesting. These are mostly small images – and mostly presented in vintage prints – but we are well able to see Hoppé’s extraordinary ability to use slight blur, narrow depth of field and subtle light to present very human portraits of his sitters. The image of Ezra Pound is the one used to draw you across the room but there are dozens of others that are its equal including for example a pair that capture Margot Fonteyn as she is about to embark on her career. It’s not just hindsight that means you see her future in these images.

As mentioned, the exhibition is filled out with selected images from Hoppé’s international tours – a Maori prince, a Native American warrior, that sort of thing – alongside choices from Book of Fair Women which was somewhat groundbreaking in pointing out that you didn’t need a title to be beautiful, although I can’t quite get Sid James’s voice out of my head when thinking about it.

Hoppé was active from 1907 until after the second world war and this exhibition covers the years up to about 1939. I do feel that despite bringing his name back to the fore after a long period out of the public eye this survey hasn’t presented him at his strongest. It gives the impression that he was a jack of all trades when there are glimpses that he was actually a master of some. He could be the missing link but the exhibition doesn’t present strong enough evidence.

However, the catalogue (£22.50 in hardback so almost good value) make a stronger case and if I was unconvinced by the show it has been that which has put me back firmly on E O Hoppé’s side. Off the wall the images look stronger and the essays present and contextualise the work. If you’re short of funds in these austerity times skip the exhibition and go straight to the book.

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