“I do not claim to be able to explain the world or to explain my own thoughts.”
“With photography, what I really want to do is compose the image, as I do in painting,” the artist Florence Henri has said about her artistic approach. “The volumes, lines, shadows and light should submit to my will and say what I would like them to say. All of this under the strict control of the composition, because I do not claim to be able to explain the world or to explain my own thoughts.”
Henri started her career as a pianist and then trained as a painter at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany (where she studied with Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky), and at the Académie Moderne in Paris (with Fernand Léger). She painted in an abstract style and often combined collage elements in her work (see Black-White-Silver No. 11 and Construction bleu-rouge-noir. These early works referenced Cubism, Purism, and Constructivism, art movements that Henri was well attuned to from her studies and travels in Europe.
Henri turned to photography after spending a semester at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, in 1927. Even though photography wasn’t introduced into the curriculum until 1929, it had already been used on campus for documentary, publicity, and experimental purposes for years. Henri’s professor, László Maholy-Nagy said, “With Florence Henri’s photos, photographic practice enters a new phase, the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today…. Reflections and spatial relationships, superposition and intersections are just some of the areas explored from a totally new perspective and viewpoint.”
Though photography is a medium that uses light to capture the surfaces of physical objects, she manipulated light and manipulated objects to create a dialogue between realism and abstraction. Henri frequently experimented with mirror, angling them to create surreal still lives and self-portraits marked by spatial ambiguity. She also manipulated her images via photomontage, multiple exposures, and negative printing. This experimental work exemplified the New Vision movement (a term coined by Moholy-Nagy), and it earned its place on the walls of the prominent international photography exhibitions of the time, including Fotografie der Gegenwart (1929), Film und Foto (1929), and Das Lichtbild (1930).
In 1929, Henri established her own successful studio in Paris, and she taught photography to artists such as Gisèle Freund and Lisette Model. During the Nazi occupation, photographic supplies became difficult to acquire, and Henri’s experimental style was in danger of being deemed “degenerate” by the regime. Henri returned to painting, but it was her photographs, taken mainly between 1927 and 1940, that left lasting impressions on her contemporaries and later generations alike.
Jane Pierce, Carl Jacobs Foundation Research Assistant, Department of Photography