Yevonde by Yevonde

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[IMAGE] A white woman with short curly hair and wearing a smart blue shirt holds a photograph in her hands. She is surrounded by a gold frame and various random props. These include a blue butterfly, lightbulbs and fruit.
Yevonde, the innovative photographer who pioneered colour photography.
Yevonde
by Yevonde
dye transfer print, 1940
14 7/8 in. x 12 in. (378 mm x 305 mm)
NPG P620
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Yevonde (1893–1975) was the professional name of Yevonde Cumbers. She was an innovator in photographic technique and Pioneer A person who is the first to do, discover, or study something. colour photography before other professional photographers had begun to take it seriously. She specialised in portraits and Still life A work of art showing arrangements of objects such as flowers or fruit. , experimenting with backgrounds, props, composition and lighting to create dramatic photographs. Her catchphrase was ‘be original or die!’ 

Yevonde continued to experiment with photographic processes and techniques throughout her 60-year career. 

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] A white woman with short curly hair and wearing a smart blue shirt holds a photograph in her hands. She is surrounded by a gold frame and various random props. These include a blue butterfly, lightbulbs and fruit.
Yevonde, by Yevonde, 1940

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Yevonde sits behind an empty gold frame, like those that surround traditional paintings. 
    • She is sitting side-on but facing the camera. This is a Conventional Following what is traditional or the way something has been done for a long time. and familiar Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. for a photographic portrait (have you ever Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. like this for a school photograph?). However, this is the only aspect of the portrait that is conventional.
    • Yevonde has staged the portrait using a creative arrangement of objects, and dramatic lighting. The way she uses the empty gold frame seems almost playful. This all makes her portrait look like a Contemporary Following modern ideas in style or design. artwork. 
    • It is very different from the reserved portraits of people in stiff poses that we might expect to see from this time.
    • Yevonde has surrounded herself with the tools of her trade as a photographer. These props reflect Yevonde’s passion for photography and reveal her in-depth knowledge of its processes and techniques.
    • Bottles of chemicals are grouped to one side of the gold frame. Chemicals are used in the process of Analogue photography Photography that uses chemical processes to capture an image on film, paper, or even a glass plate. , especially in colour processes, with which Yevonde experimented.
    • She wears a protective plastic glove on her right hand. This shows us that she took a hands-on approach to the photographic process.
    • She holds a photographic negative in her gloved hand. We can also see camera lenses and rubber air puffers (used for blowing dust from lenses and other sensitive camera equipment) grouped in front of the frame.
    • There is photo-developing equipment to the side of the gold frame and shutter-release cables draped over it.
    • Lightbulbs hang either side of the frame. These perhaps symbolise light, which is essential to the photographic process.
    • Yevonde wears a heavy chain and key around her neck. These perhaps symbolise that, as a successful photographer and businesswoman, she had found the key to the chains that often hold women back.
    • A butterfly is attached to the shutter-release cords around the gold frame. As well as adding a pop of bright colour, the butterfly may symbolise freedom or luck.
    • Above Yevonde, and attached to the gold frame is her portrait of the Duchess of Wellington, an important client. It belongs to a series of portraits in which Yevonde Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. her The person in a portrait A person who sits or stands somewhere so that somebody can paint a picture of them or photograph them.  as goddesses, making a positive statement about the power of women.
    • The gold frame suggests historical paintings. Yevonde places herself within the frame, perhaps implying that she is following in this tradition of great, Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. painters.
    • Yevonde has used a strong light source behind the frame, placing it low down to light up the background. This creates a dramatic mood, with bright areas and dark shadows, and her figure is sharply outlined.
    • The light creates the illusion that the space within the frame is separate from the rest of the photograph, revealing Yevonde’s playful approach to portraiture.
    • She has also lit the set-up from the front, using softer lighting, which allows us to see her face and the various objects arranged in front of the gold frame.
    • The dramatic backlighting and gold frame ensure that Yevonde is the focus of the portrait. Nonetheless, the objects within the composition have been carefully arranged so that our eyes travel around it, taking it all in.
    • The dangling loop of cables frame Yevonde’s face, highlighting the circular composition.
    • Yevonde has used colour to highlight the important elements in the portrait. Her face, the bottles of chemicals, gold frame, blue butterfly, and the scarf worn by the Duchess of Wellington all stand out against the grey background and fur-covered ledge or table in the foreground.
    • Yevonde has also used bright pops of colour to create a dynamic diagonal line across the portrait. The orange bottle, blue butterfly and yellow scarf in the photograph lead our gaze from the bottom left-hand corner diagonally up to the top.
    • She has used a combination of different types of colours: more muted colours that relate to the real world as well as brighter colours that look more abstract.
    • The colour of her skin and hair, the gold frame, bottles of chemicals and photographic equipment all look realistic.
    • The bright yellow in the photograph of the Duchess of Wellington above the gold frame looks less realistic. This reminds us that this portrait dates from an earlier time when photographs were tinted with colour after they were printed.
    • The colours on the light bulb to the right of the gold frame (cyan, magenta and yellow) are separated. This creates a blurred effect, which suggests a sense of movement.
Be original or die would be a good motto for photographers to adopt … let them put life and colour into their work.
Yevonde, 1936

Who was Yevonde?

  • Yevonde was born into a wealthy family in south London, England.
  • She joined the Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. movement as a young woman and passionately supported the ‘votes for women’ campaign. She became an apprentice photographer after seeing an advert in The Suffragette newspaper.
  • In 1914, Yevonde set up her own photography business. She was just 21 years old. She wanted it to be different from traditional portrait agencies, and adopted a more creative, Contemporary Following modern ideas in style or design. approach to studio portraiture. She mainly wanted to move away from Conventional Following what is traditional or the way something has been done for a long time. portraits of women as Submissive Willing to accept somebody else’s authority and willing to obey them without question. objects of beauty.
  • Her business did well despite facing stiff competition. Within months of setting it up, she was supplying photographs to fashionable magazines.  
  • In 1921, she became the first woman to give a talk to the Professional Photographers’ Association, speaking about ‘photographic portraiture from the woman’s point of view’. 
  • In the 1930s, Yevonde began to use the Vivex colour process An early colour photography process that involved layering different colour negatives. and produced some of her most memorable work. After mastering this complex process, she improved on it through constant experimentation. She became a leading Pioneer A person who is the first to do, discover, or study something. of colour photography.
  • In 1940, Yevonde was elected as a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society for her work in colour photography.
  • Yevonde continued to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional portrait photography throughout her career, which lasted over 60 years.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This self-portrait was one of the last images Yevonde made using the Vivex colour process An early colour photography process that involved layering different colour negatives. .
  • It combines many aspects of Yevonde’s innovative portrait making: her pioneering use of colour; a gold, Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. frame, which she often used in her photographs; an example of her creative portraits of women; and many references to her successful career as a photographer.

Questions

  1. What overall impression do you get of Yevonde from this self-portrait?
  1. Does she inspire your own work in any way? Why?
  1. What objects or props might you include in your self-portrait? What would they say about you and your identity?