Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Skinny -- Paul Himmel

Grand Central Terminal, NYC, 1947

Paul Himmel, an American fashion and documentary photographer, was born in 1914 in New Haven, Connecticut.  His parents were Ukranian immigrants.  They moved to Coney Island in 1922, and opened the country's first vegetarian restaurant.   

As a teenager, Himmel taught himself about photography.  But he went to school for science, and began teaching in 1932.  It wasn't his calling, though, and he then studied graphic journalism at the New School with Harper's Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch in the late 1940s (Brodovitch worked there from 1938-58).  

Himmel's portrait of Bassman

It was his relationship with Lillian Bassman, the love of his life, that most affected Himmel, though.  He met her in 1923, married her in 1935, and exhibited his first work in 1939 -- photos taken while on a trip to Mexico with her.  Bassman was also a fashion photographer, and is very well known in her own right.  They were married over 73 years.

He started to work as a professional photographer in 1945, and by 1947 he was working steadily as a fashion photographer for Bazaar and Vogue.  He was one of the very few who worked for both magazines.  Unfortunately, all his negatives from this time have been destroyed.

Bassman and Himmel, 2003

By the 1950s, bored with the commercialism of his fashion work, Himmel started his own art projects.  He looked to the human form for inspiration, focusing on people who used their bodies in their own work, like ballet dancers, circus performers, and boxers.  He experimented with grain structure in his negatives and prints, using a series of silhouetted and elongated forms abbreviated almost to the point of abstraction.  His photos are high-contrast, emphasizing the design and patterns contained in the image.

ballet in action, 1954

He published a book, ballet in action, in 1954.  It had an extensive foreword, written by George Balanchine, the lead choreographer of the New York City Ballet.  In 1955, some of his images were included in a show curated by Edward Steichen, called "The Family of Man" for MOMA.

ballet in action, 1954

Himmel took his last photograph in 1967, and by 1969, he became disenchanted with photography and retrained as a psychotherapist. He worked in psychotherapy for more than 25 years.  An exhibition at the New York Galleries, by Howard Greenberg and James Danzinger, in 1996 reintroduced his work; it was an instant success, and a new book of his work was published.

Abstract Nudes, 1954

Paul Himmel died February 8, 2009.

*Info from, and Wikipedia

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