Collection:

Victoria and Albert Museum / Elsbeth Juda

Victoria and Albert Museum / Elsbeth Juda

May 2012

Continuing in the series of features in Photomonitor’s ‘Collections’ section, Erika Lederman, a writer and photo historian working in the Word and Image department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, gives a rare glimpse into the life and work of Elsbeth Juda, whose work is currently featured in the installation ‘Island Stories’ curated from the collection at the V&A. 

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During Britain’s lean post-war years, the sentiment among British manufacturers was ‘export or die’.  In response to this very real threat, The Ambassador, a trade-only publication which flourished from the 1940s to the 1960s, set out to stoke foreign demand in order get Britain’s renowned luxury industries back in the business of selling after years of rations and diverted production.  

It was within the pages of this ground-breaking publication that Irish linen, Staffordshire pottery and Scottish cashmeres and tartans featured in inspired scenarios styled and photographed by Elsbeth Juda, radically defying what had been the stodgy limits of British fashion and advertising photography.  These thoroughly modern images, along with fresh graphics, and illustrations by some of Britain’s leading artists of the time, had a huge impact on the revitalization of British industry, not only promoting British craft, but also the British lifestyle.

Part of the intellectually rich generation that escaped Nazi Germany, Elsbeth and her husband Hans, a journalist, landed in London in 1933.  In that same year, Hans opened the London office of International Textiles, a Dutch magazine which included advertisements, editorial comment and illustrated fashion news on all aspects of international fashion and textiles. It also featured articles on the international economic situation and export markets, as well as reporting on exhibitions and trade fairs.  At the outbreak of  the Second World War communications were severed between the Dutch and English offices and the two journals continued publication independently during the War, both using the title International Textiles. With the end of the War this situation was formalised and from March 1946 the British magazine changed its title to The Ambassador, acting as the British export journal for textiles and fashion with Hans as publisher.

It was through the Bauhaus legend Lázló Moholy-Nagy that Juda was pushed towards the camera.  As The Ambassador’s first Art Director, Moholy-Nagy recognized Juda’s talent during a photo shoot and sent her to study with his ex-wife, Lucia Moholy-Nagy, one of the most prolific photographers of the Bauhaus, who was teaching photography in London after emigrating in response to Hitler’s fascist threat.   Described by Juda as ‘quite serious and humourless’, Lucia would arrive at the tiny Juda flat and construct Bauhaus-style still lives (whose descendants can be seen within the pages of The Ambassador).   Under the guidance of Lucia, Juda would photograph these constructions learning how to operate the large Gandolfi camera with its cumbersome glass plates. The flat also operated as a darkroom.  ‘It was all pretty primitive’, remembers Juda, ‘with the fixing and rinsing taking place in the bathtub’.  According to Juda, the lessons all became too much for Hans, ‘not knowing whether he was eating dinner or hypo’.

Soon after, Juda did a stint as a ‘dark room boy’ at the Scaioni Studio in Dean Street, London, graduating quickly to the position of photographer.  After the studio was bombed, Juda set up her own studio in London, applying her newly acquired technical skills to the business of commercial photography.  Despite her petite build, Juda would haul her Gandolfi 10 x 8” “on the No. 6 Bus” working for various advertising agencies and magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar

By the 1940s, Juda, now known as ‘Jay’, had become the primary photographer for The Ambassador.  As Juda remembers it, shoots were produced within a very tight budget.  While war-time hostilities had ended, coupons continued to be used in England in some form up until the mid-1950s.  ‘We did the best we could do for the money available,’ she insists, adding ‘originality doesn’t cost anything.’  The business of fashion photography had yet to invent the ‘celebrity photographer’ as characterized in Michelangelo Antonio’s 1966 film Blow Up.  Elaborate productions with armies of assistants and staff, were unheard of then.  Juda recalls: ‘it was a matter of let’s see what we can do.’  Whatever the circumstances, she adopted, and often worked with what she had on hand, calling upon untrained local ‘extras’ to achieve her artistic ends – whether it be weavers, glassblowers, or in one case, the Senior Executives of the Calico Printers Association.  She worked quickly, remembered by one of her models as one of the ‘fastest in the business.’ 

After the shoots the film was delivered to the basement darkroom of The Ambassador’s offices.  From the contacts, proofs would be made and marked up by Juda for cropping and retouching.  It was her job to gather all the details concerning the collections.  These were the early years of mixed fibre textiles, and the exact contents information was an essential aspect of the editorial content. The Ambassador archives consist of hundreds of photos marked in Juda’s distinctive loopy hand on their reverse with the merchandise details.  

Through Juda’s lens, British craft was transformed:  uncut swathes of fabric pulled from bails of Lancashire textiles, became evening dress when draped upon the lithe form of top model Barbara Goalen — all the more striking in its variance with the stark surroundings of the industrial mills; a production line of Scottish cashmere sweaters, through decidedly modernist framing, are turned into an belligerent phalanx of competing diagonals and verticals.  Juda’s original aesthetic, heavily influenced by the spread of European modernism, predicted the burst of talent that defined 1960s Britain.

The Ambassador caught the eye of Stanley Marcus, of the Texas-based luxury retail emporium Neiman Marcus. Marcus early on recognized and appreciated the modernist aesthetics of The Ambassador magazine, which had been forwarded to his offices in Dallas, and he made the publication his first stop upon returning to London to re-engage with the European markets. That meeting established a friendship that continued throughout Marcus’s lifetime and when Juda arrived in the United States on a fact-finding trip, he arranged for her access to the Kodak headquarters in Rochester, New York, and the studios of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.  Juda still clearly remembers Avedon’s daylight studio. ‘That was for me’, she recalls, and it is not surprising that her most remarkable shoots for The Ambassador were those that relied upon natural light, eschewing the artificial staged lighting that defined the merchandise pages of trade publications of the time. 

As a trade publication, The Ambassador was unique in its insistence on the separation of editorial and advertising content.  While Juda is quick to point out that advertisers were taken into consideration, The Ambassador was an early adopter of an independent editorial directive.  As a result, the distinctive modernist aesthetic that Juda brought to the composition of the photo shoots was delivered to the pages of the publication relatively undiluted.

Taking advantage of the new opportunities for jet travel, Juda flew with her models to remote locations, including Brazil, Japan and New Zealand, posing them spontaneously with locals against the iconic landscapes of exotic locations.  And while Juda was certainly not the first to venture outside and surrender to the anarchy of the location and challenge the static, artificial air of studio fashion photography, (that territory belonged to the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi), Juda’s work for The Ambassador distinguished itself through it’s decisive wit and an attraction to the outrageous. 

Juda’s sense of humour sought out the unexpected and she preferred the spontaneous over the stilted.  Props might include a tangle of rough cotton yarn, a giant snowman, the black and white floor tiles of a marble entryway or a stuffed grizzly bear. Upon reflection Juda remembers ‘when it was really absurd, it always tempted me.’

One of Juda’s most memorable shoots is that which she did for her good friend, the painter Graham Sutherland, in 1954.  Commissioned by the Houses of Parliament to paint a portrait of a diminished Winston Churchill on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Sutherland knew the portrait was not going well and he called in Juda to document the sitting in the event he was unable to complete the commission.  In the end, the story goes, Churchill despised the portrait and had it destroyed shortly after it was received.

The Ambassador ceased publication in 1972.  Hans died in 1975  The archive of the magazine, covering the period between 1933 to 1970 was gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Archive of Art and Design by Elsbeth Juda in 1987.  It has since been extensively catalogued and in addition to the volumes of the magazine, it contains correspondence to and from such artists as Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, and there are hundreds of photographs, including contact sheets and proofs taken by Juda.

There is currently a small display of fourteen photographs by Juda and selected ephemera from the magazine included in the V&A’s current installation, ‘Island Stories’ (16 March – 19 September 2012).  They have been sourced from this archive and most are tinged with Juda’s irreverent sense of humour including a ‘life study’ style sketch of a ladies foundation garment, and a primitive stick-like drawing photographed at blackboard in the control room of Calder Hall nuclear power plant.  And while Juda will insist that her work is merely ‘job lot’, the viewer cannot help but assume she had a lot fun doing it.

Elsbeth Juda is 101 years old.

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Island Stories’ (open until 19 September) is part of the V&A’s British Design Season and complements the V&A’s major spring exhibition ‘British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age‘ (until 12 August 2012), sponsored by Ernst & Young.