Hoppé’s Australia: Photographs from the Oroton Collection

  • Artist
    E. O. Hoppé
  • Dates
    18—27 Apr 2024
  • Gallery Location
    Eora / Sydney

E O Hoppé (1878-1972): portrait, travel, and topographic photographer

When Emil Otto Hoppé arrived in Australia from London in 1930, the German-born photographer was at the height of his powers. Hoppé was widely considered to be the most famous photographer in the world. The dapper Hoppé, who was fond of wearing spats, cravats and sported a mane of luxuriant black hair, epitomised the celebrity portrait photographer, snapping such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Virginia Woolf. Hoppé was in addition, a gifted observational photographer.

Commissioned in 1929 to create a photographic portrait of Australia, Hoppé approached the project with a thoroughness that still shines through. For a moment, let us consider Hoppé’s presence here. The seemingly simple act of traveling to Australia, and around this country in 1930, was not a matter to be taken lightly. The time, considerable expense, and project management of the commission in that day can be viewed in stark contrast to today’s contemporary artists, their abilities to move relatively freely, and the modesty of contemporary costs. Hoppé coming to Australia was a serious matter. Assisted by his 18-year-old son, Frank, the 52-year-old Hoppe seemed as drawn to inland Australia as to its coastal cities, and his photographs of remote First Nations peoples and their communities provide unvarnished portraits of their life almost 100 years ago.

Cecil Beaton, the British fashion, portraitist and war photographer – who studied Hoppé from first to last – called him “the Master”, and anyone might learn a great deal from his photographs. Indeed, learning was a central tenant to Hoppé’s approach. There are no preconceptions, you feel, controlling Hoppé’ s portraits: each sitter is someone to discover from the start, someone to converse with, to try to comprehend. Hoppé wanted the photographic technicalities to be as simple as possible, he said, so he could focus on his rapport with the sitter. He didn’t vanish the subject under metres of black stage cloth or bathe them in trick-up indoor lighting. Hoppé sat as close to his subject as possible, with a camera cable release, so the shutter could be operated unobtrusively. No fuss, and as little intervention as possible.

Within this evocative selection of photographs, from a most extraordinary private archive, we see Hoppé’s vintage print of three Aboriginal women dressed in European clothes studying a film poster at Hermannsburg Mission. This print captures the incongruity of life for many First Nations people in 1930; dressed for a new world; considering its popular culture from a palpable distance. Then we have photographs of traditionally dressed men, devoid of social judgment, or the early tendency to exoticise. We also see traditional men painted for ceremony, but instead playing football. A joyous performance; but not for the camera. Hoppé’s unsentimental humanity is a unifying theme in this exhibition.

Hoppé had an eye for the unconsidered. His print of a surfer, from 1930 ranks as one of only a handful of early images taken of that pastime in its early days. For a German living in London, to see a man on a plank on a wave must have been an extraordinary thing. There is much to see here. And consider. Hoppé’s brief, influential presence in Australia adds an important chapter to the history of our nation. It is not recorded whether a talented 19-year-old apprentice in Cecil Bostock’s Sydney studio named Max Dupain ever met the energetic German from London, but Dupain’s rapid mastery of modern photography might suggest he did so or at least, knew of Hoppé’s work.

Art Museum Collections
National Portrait Gallery (London)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
National Media Museum, Bradford
George Eastman House at Rochester
Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin (Gernsheim
New York Public Library
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

© E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection/Curatorial Inc.


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