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Lucien Hervé photographs of architecture and artworks by Le Corbusier, 1949-1965

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Lucien Hervé photographs of architecture and artworks by Le Corbusier

Biographical / Historical

One of the most prominent architectural photographers of the twentieth century, Lucien Hervé created a body of work, inspired by a Modernist philosophy, that remains uniquely identifiable. His tightly cropped images, in high contrast, offering oblique views, and often favoring the shadows cast by a form over an investigation of the form itself place an emphasis on mood, and on providing the viewer access to the transcendental nature of structure. Although Hervé worked with many of the influential architects of the twentieth century, his fifteen-year collaboration with architect Le Corbusier defines his career. Hervé served as Le Corbusier's official photographer from 1949 until the architect's death in 1965.

Lucien Hervé was born László Elkán on August 7, 1910, in Hódmezovásárhely, a city in south-east Hungary. The son of middle-class parents, Elkán showed artistic inclinations as a child, first through seriously dedicating himself to the piano, and later bydemonstrating an interest in drawing. At the age of eighteen he left home for Vienna, Austria, enrolling in university to study economics, an endeavor that was soon abandoned in favor of drawing courses at Vienna's Akademie der bildenden Künste. A year later he went to Paris, taking a job as a bank clerk, while spending his free time exploring the city's museums. By the early 1930s he had become involved in fashion, and worked as a designer for many notable houses, including Patou, Chanel, Rochas, and Schiaparelli.

The worldwide Great Depression had a crushing impact on the economy and social stability of Paris in the 1930s. Lingering post-war debt and vast unemployment led to the legal implementation of shortened work-hours, which sparked labor disputes, worker strikes, and violent confrontations. This unstable climate inspired Elkán to join the French Communist Party in 1934. He was instrumental in the organization of the 1935 Paris labor strikes and became the secretary-general of the Central Labor Organization, a labor union affiliated with the Communist Party. Elkán was expelled from the Communist Party in 1938, after which he began working with fellow Hungarian Nicolás Müller, the cousin of a close friend. The pair produced several articles for the publication Marianne, a weekly Paris news magazine. Müller spoke very little French, so Elkán produced the text, while Müller supplied the photographs, and the resulting essays were credited to Müller. Müller left France for Spain in September 1938, and Elkán continued producing photographs for the magazine using Müller's byline.

By 1939 Elkán had become a naturalized citizen of France and was drafted into the French army. He continued to take photographs during his service, producing photo essays that were published in Vu. Captured by German forces during the Battle of Dunkirk in June 1940, he was held captive as a prisoner of war in East Prussia, and later formally arrested for his involvement in resistance activities within the prison camp. In September 1941 he escaped and traveled to Vichy, France, where he resumed his work with the French Resistance. By 1943 he had rejoined the Communist Party, and this time he did so under a new name - Lucien Hervé.

Hervé spent the following years actively involved in the Mouvement National des Prisonniers de Guerre et Déportés, until his second expulsion from the Communist Party in June 1947. At this time he took pictures for a variety of magazines, including France Illustration, Points de vue, Regards, and Lilliput. He also notably returned to an architectural subject he had first explored ten years earlier, the Eiffel Tower. Hervé took hundreds of photographs of the cultural icon, even reviewing its architectural plans, a tactic he would later employ in his consideration of Le Corbusier's work.

A desire to meet and photograph Henri Matisse led Hervé to connect with Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican priest who had befriended Matisse during the construction of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence on the French Riviera. Father Couturier, the publisher of the French journal L'art sacré, has been credited with bringing a modern perspective to religious art. In 1949 Father Couturier was in Marseille, and happened to walk by the construction site of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation; he contacted Hervé suggesting the housing project would make a suitable subject for Hervé's lens. Hervé approached the publication France Illustration seeking a commission, but the idea was not well received. Fortunately Plaisir de France felt differently, and Hervé departed for Marseille on assignment in early December 1949. Due to limited funds, Hervé gave himself one day to photograph the housing block with his Rolleiflex 6x6, famously shooting six hundred and fifty negatives over the course of a bright and sunny day.

In accordance with a notice posted at the building site's entrance instructing that copies of all photographs taken of the building be sent directly to Le Corbusier, Hervé promptly sent the architect contact prints of his negatives. On December 15, 1949, Hervé received a letter of praise from Le Corbusier - a now well-documented letter that marked a new beginning in Hervé's career, as well as the beginning of an enduring relationship though which, in a sentiment expressed so well by Marco Iuliano, a "new, more humane idea of Modernity was formed and broadcast around the world (Iuliano, 2016, 1100)." From that point onward, Lucien Hervé served as Le Corbusier's official photographer. Hervé photographed Le Corbusier's current architectural projects, and was also commissioned by the architect to document earlier projects. Le Corbusier wanted to see all of his architecture through Hervé's lens, so as to create a stylistic harmony in the documentation of his ideas. The two men worked closely to create a visual archive of Le Corbusier's architecture and artwork, producing a multitude of highly-edited sets of negatives and contact prints that function as the official record of Le Corbusier's legacy.

Le Corbusier experienced heart-failure while swimming at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in August, 1965. The collaboration that had defined Hervé's career had ended, but he would continue to be recruited by many renowned architects, all eager to see their work translated through this photographer with the so-called "soul of an architect" (Le Corbusier to Lucien Hervé, December, 1949.) He photographed the work of Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Paolo Nervi, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Hervé was also generous with his time, and frequently engaged with young architectural students who came to him seeking advice.

Hervé died on the 26th of June, 2007, in Paris, France, at the age of 96.

Bibliography

Beer, Olivier. Lucien Hervé: Building Images. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2004.

Iuliano, Marco. "Lucien Hervé and Le Corbusier: Pair or Peers?" The Journal of Architecture 21:7(2016): 1100-1126.

Sbriglio, Jacques. Le Corbusier & Lucien Hervé: A Dialogue Between Architect and Photographer. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2011.




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