Our reopening exhibition Yevonde: Life and Colour will explore the life and career of Yevonde – a pioneering London photographer who spearheaded the use of colour photography in the 1930s.
But who was she? And why is she so important? Join exhibition curator Clare Freestone as she offers a beginner’s guide to this brilliant innovator.
‘Be original or die would be a good motto for photographers to adopt … let them put life and colour into their work’ (Yevonde, 1936)
Yevonde was a vivacious and adaptable photographer operating her London studio throughout most of the twentieth century.
A suffragette at the height of the cause and lifelong supporter of women’s rights Yevonde took up photography in 1914 as a route to independence. In 1921 she declared ‘portrait photography without women would be a sorry business’. As a member of the Women’s Provisional Club for professional women she spoke out ‘in no phase of modern life has women’s influence proved so stimulating as in photography.’
‘Colour photography after dillying and dallying by the wayside, in the end arrived’.
In the interwar years of rapid change and technological advances Yevonde became a pioneer working with the Vivex colour process. Her commitment to colour photography and imaginative technique resulted in a unique vision still fresh today.
Technique and vision
Yevonde shot onto three negatives through filters to create a separation image ready for printing. Her Vivex colour Carbro-type prints were made at the first colour print service for professional photographers in the UK.
Yevonde celebrated the fact that colour photography had ‘no history, no tradition, no old masters, but only a future!’ She experimented with lighting, depth-of-field, compositional props, reflective materials and patterns.
Yevonde in print
From 1914 Yevonde’s portraits of society and celebrities appeared in readily consumed illustrated magazines. In the 1920s and 30s she added advertisements and fashion to her repertoire and captured the modern woman’s androgynous features in her double portraits.
Yevonde believed in the contemporary supremacy of colour and the need for innovation in the heavily populated field of portrait photography. She described royal patronage as ‘the peak in a photographer’s career’ and photographed George VI’s royal coronation guests in 1937 – bringing a new vision to glorified tradition.
Modern women – domesticity and allure
Yevonde herself a modern independent woman embraced the commercial sector. Her intensely hued scenarios provide wry observations of the dual demands on readers of colourful new women’s titles.
Narrative art, modernism, mythology and surrealism pervade Yevonde’s portraiture, still-life, commercial work and most obviously her fantastical Goddesses.
Goddesses and Others announced Yevonde’s move to Mayfair in 1935. Guests from a fancy dress ball and other female acquaintances were made-up, dressed-up, propped and preened, dramatically lit, cropped and composed to reimagine powerful female deities.
Yevonde’s still life allowed her quirky imagination to run wild- to create Surrealist scenarios, to communicate through colour and form.
At the end of the 1930s Yevonde’s husband of nineteen years died and the opportunity for colour work ceased with the onset of war. Yevonde adapted and throughout the 1940s experimented with montage and on-location portraits. Her 1960s foray into Solarisation resulted in strikingly immediate portraits. Yevonde’s series of Distinguished Women made at the end of the decade celebrated the talents of her gender once more.
Yevonde: Life and Colour is supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund, and builds on Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture, a major partnership project that aims to enhance the representation of women in the Gallery’s Collection.
Kindly supported by: