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Photography & media

Through John Hedgecoe's lens – the face of the artist

— July 2011

Associated media

Francis Bacon, 1969

Matthew Sillence visits a new photographic exhibition

Henry Moore is perched awkwardly on a pedestal.  It is a strangely staged image of one of the most famous sculptors of 20th century and, as uncomfortable as he seems, the photographer has managed to make him resemble one of his own bronze reclining figures.  The photograph features in the new exhibition, The Face of the Artist: Photographs by John Hedgecoe, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

Henry Moore, Dame Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Sir Stanley Spencer and many other figures from the worlds of art, fashion and literature appear in this show, which celebrates the gallery’s recent acquisition of 450 portraits by John Hedgecoe (1932–2010), one of last century’s leading portrait photographers, whose body of work included well-known public figures such as Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen.  Hedgecoe was also a prolific writer on photography and his books still inform aspiring photographers today.

The treatment of the body of the artist is very much the focus of the exhibition, as Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Dr Paul Greenhalgh, explains: ‘The physical appearance of the artist, his or her features, mannerisms, eccentricities, and posture has long fascinated us. John Hedgecoe, one of the great society photographers and educators of the last half century, brilliantly photographed many of the greatest painters, sculptors, poets, and cultural thinkers of his age.’

Many of the portraits on display have a connection with the Sainsbury Centre's permanent collection, which includes works by Bacon and Moore.  With the latter, Hedgecoe developed a long friendship, which accounts for the numerous portraits arranged at the entrance to the show that allow the visitor to see the sculptor's face across the decades.  Remarkably, Hedgecoe seems to have captured Moore in such a way that advancing age is barely noticeable, even over two decades.  A portrait from 1966 (click on the images in our light box above), which shows Moore's hands thrust at the camera lens, also reminds the visitor that it is not just the face of the artist that the public needs to remember.  At times, Hedgecoe's portraits are slightly comical, at others decidedly sinister.  In one, Dame Barbara Hepworth is presented as a frail, elderly lady and in another as a menacing figure shrouded in her black fur coat (see light box).  These dramatic effects were achieved mainly through the angle of the shot.

This exhibition will certainly appeal to those interested in the history of photography and to portrait photographers who want to see how a subject can be posed.  From the selection of photographs on display, Hedgecoe seems to have considered each shot very carefully.  Even within the chaos of an artist's studio there is a sense of orchestration in the foregrounding of canvases or paintbrushes.  This quality may not appeal to everyone, particularly those hoping to encounter the fabled spontaneity of the artist at work.

Although Hedgecoe's anecdotes provide some background to the photographer's encounters with his subjects, his life and techniques are not explored in depth, and just how much input each artist had into his or her image is left open to question.  The exhibition needed a catalogue to provide more context, and given the number of photographs acquired by the Sainsbury Centre, this would have made a fascinating publication.  For lovers of 20th-century art it does provide a rare opportunity to see some ground-breaking figures become the subject of another's gaze and the camera's lens.  Look closely, because even through the choreography it is just possible to glimpse their vulnerability.


Matthew Sillence
University of East Anglia, Norwich
Art historian

Media credit: © 2011 John Hedgecoe/TopFoto

Editor's notes

The Face of the Artist is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich until 4th December 2011.

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