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The remarkable thing about Hoppé  is that such an extraordinary life should be so little known outside the world of the photographic historian and photo-cognoscenti. It was a gloriously full life of amazing achievement –not least because Hoppé  lived to 94, leaving, when he died in 1972, a vast archive of negatives now managed and exhibited by his estate.

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Emil Otto Hoppé

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After early study in Vienna and Paris, Hoppé  moved to London in 1900 and became essentially 'British' thereafter. Although he had dreamed of becoming an artist – a notion championed by his mother –it was a banking career that brought him to London, ostensibly on his way to Shanghai and another post in finance. However he stayed in the UK, working for a variety of German Banks and City institutions. His introduction to photography came in 1903, in the person of John Warburg. With a determination that characterises all of Hoppé's life, he set about the art of photography with the purchase of a professional camera, a Goerz-Anschutz, inspired by Warburg's vision of photography as a fine art, controllable by the photographer. An ideal which, coincidentally, matched cultured German opinion as to the aesthetic purity of the artist/amateur snapper.

Only four years later, Hoppé  won a Daily Mail newspaper prize of £100 (a huge sum at the time) and decided to turn professional. Again characteristically, he calculated his financial position down to the last penny before appealing to his father to sanction this career change.

From 1907, right up until the outbreak of the Great War, his work in the field of portrait photography was earning him acclaim and rewards and – along with Sir Benjamin Stone – he even represented Great Britain at the 1909 International Exhibition of Photography in Dresden. The virulent and often violent anti-German feeling, which swept the country once the War casualty figures dramatically increased after 1914, seems to have left Hoppé  untouched. His portraits of the great and the good in English society are a priceless record of Edwardian England in full sail. He has even been described as 'the most famous photographer in the world in the 1920's by one academic.(1)

Hoppé´s portrait work during the war years encompassed an incredible range of what would now be regarded as A-list celebrities –Jacob Epstein, Ellen Terry, Marinetti, Richard Strauss, William Strang, Nijinsky, Leon Bakst, Edward Gordon Craig, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, A. A. Milne, Kipling, Conan Doyle, amongst many other luminaries. Post War, his reputation was reinforced by sittings with the British Royal Family and leading politicians in both the UK and USA. Clearly the man enjoyed a degree of personal magnetism and charm to match his skills with a camera. In 1914, at the outbreak of War, he had been contributing to a newly launched art magazine, Colour, and only two years later, when British Vogue appeared for the first time in 1916, Hoppé supplied editorial and society photographs for the early issues.

The Great War had introduced harsh realities into society and the arts. The pleasantries of Art Nouveau and post Impressionism were soon eclipsed in an already cynical Europe, dealt a second deadly blow by an influenza pandemic that dispatched up to 40 million people in less than two years –more than the Great War and the mediaeval Black Death plague before it. A new vision reigned.

When he prepared for his great documentary trip to the USA in 1926, a follow up to a 1921 expedition photographing New York topography, it was with a foreigner's eye and a bag of mixed feelings about a nation far removed from the post-War melancholy of a traumatised Europe. The result would be Romantische Amerika, where Hoppé turned an eye, fine-tuned amidst the geometric angularity of New York City, out into the multifarious cultural anomalies that make up the most dynamic capitalist nation on Earth.

To a spectator from mittel-europe with its architectural and cultural histories, modernist America would seem both stimulating and, at the same time, megalomaniac. Authority, Phillip Prodger (2), proposes that Hoppé’s cultured background and, subliminally, the role played by the US in defeating the Kaiser's army, were at odds with the brash and over confident provincialism of a nation strutting unknowingly towards the Great Depression. Subsequently, Hoppé does appear to buy into the easy stereotypes of the various regions and cities of America, and his images tend to reflect the subjects as they saw themselves in the national mirror. At the same time, Hoppé   was embracing the zeitgeist and whether consciously or unconsciously, he has been credited with being a precursor of Sheeler and Demuth –and of Edward Hopper. There is certainly a visual relationship between the two former artists' paintings and photographs and Hoppé, not least in Sheeler's own studies of silos, factories and the steel architecture of industry. 

Ironically, it was Arizona that caused Hoppé   the most difficulty obtaining a satisfactory shot. Prodger notes that, as an urbanite and with a feel for the dynamic of man versus metropolis, Hoppé found wide open and empty spaces an unexpected challenge and the light quality totally alien to his experience. The contact sheets, Prodger comments, seem to indicate him 'casting around for ideas', trying to orientate himself in front of vast tracts of blank space.

Emile Otto Hoppé continued his great photographic survey project with the ’fifth continent’ of Australia during March to December, 1930. Unlike the similar exercise in the USA, journeying across Australia was far from easy and required not a little personal resilience. As he left Europe, his great documentary of German industrialisation (Deutsche Arbeit) was on the Ullstein press. Typically, Hoppé used his celebrity to pave the way with influential introductions and accompanied by his son, Frank, his work included numerous celebrity portraits alongside the landscapes. His timing was opportune – in Sydney he captured the joining of the two halves of the new Harbour Bridge.

When Hoppé died in 1972 at 94, he had become a forgotten character, the fame and recognition of the halcyon 1930s had slowly evaporated – much to his own despair. He didn’t live to see a contemporary audience revisiting his archive and applauding the treasure trove of historical milestones he had so conscientiously pursued and recorded.

1. The late Bill Jay, former Professor of Photographic History, Arizona State University, in Photographers Photographed (Gibbs M. Smith, Inc./Peregrine Books. 1983)

2. Phillip Prodger is the Lisette Model/Joseph G. Blum Fellow in history of photography at the National Gallery of Canada.

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