Cheap frills of a hotshot photographer
With non-existent budgets, for Elsbeth Juda, necessity was the mother of invention
15 March, 2018 — By Jane Clinton
Barbara Goalen with the admiring board members of the Calico Printers Association, Lancashire. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum
THE pioneering photographer Elsbeth Juda had a favourite saying: “Without capital one has to be original.”
It became her mantra and her response to having a wild and inventive imagination but a very limited budget. Indeed, looking at the images brought together for a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum so much of her work must have been a logistical and financial nightmare.
These are no anodyne studio set-ups, but complicated shoots in often unlikely and inhospitable settings.
Juda, known as “Jay” professionally, had escaped Nazi Germany and made a home in London in 1933. She was taught photography by Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy-Nagy (wife of artist László Moholy-Nagy) and had a 45-year career working mainly as a commercial photographer for magazines and advertising agencies. Her photographs also appeared in among others, Harper’s Bazaar.
Jay’s photograph of Winston Churchill taken while Graham Sutherland was painting his portrait. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum
With her husband, Hans, she worked on their commercial subscription-based trade journal, The Ambassador, which promoted British goods and culture to a global audience. It was started in 1946 and they ran it until 1961. She became its photographer and art director shooting all over the world often with meagre resources.
She would get round the financial constraints with ingenuity, imagination, flair and wit: directing, casting the shoot (often including passers-by) and even ironing the clothes to be worn.
Her 1950s images of the first supermodel, Barbara Goalen, posing in a Lancashire mill (for a piece to promote Lancashire cotton) are an example of her inventiveness. In one, Goalen is draped in fabric standing next to the mill machinery while board members look on impassively. In another she is on a rooftop, again swathed in cotton and a mill worker is holding her extravagant train.
Fashion spreads in industrial settings may be commonplace now but Juda was one of the first to see the potential of pitting glamour against grit.
Goalen, a favourite of Juda, pops up in 1953 in St Moritz, Switzerland. Dressed in a fashionable coat she wears high heels and is on skis. It is comic, eccentric and eye-catching.
Peter Blake with model Marie-Lise Gres at the ‘Love Wall’ in his studio, London, 1961. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum
There is also the high theatre of “Coronation on Ice”. Again set in St Moritz, Goalen is in full royal garb with crown and is sitting astride a horse with an entourage and carriage in a recreation of the coronation.
“When it was really absurd,” Juda once remarked. “It tempted me.”
Fantastically well connected, she had access to the leading artists and personalities of the day including Margot Fonteyn, Henry Moore and the artists Peter Blake and Graham Sutherland.
Indeed, it was Sutherland who invited Juda to photograph Churchill while he painted him. The sitting had not been going well and he thought he might have to rely on her photographs to complete the portrait.
As it turned out, her photographs of a rather forlorn-looking Churchill would outlast the portrait. Churchill hated it, it was never put on display at their home and Lady Churchill had it destroyed.
Despite the range of subjects and the inventiveness of Juda’s images, her artistic contribution has remained largely unrecognised.
“The Ambassador magazine was a commercial trade journal and she is not recognised as an art photographer but this work is very influenced by the European Modernism that she came from,” says Joanne Rosenthal, head of exhibitions at the Jewish Museum. “There is an artistic vision in the work.”
Barbara Goalen on the roof of Whitworth and Mitchell’s Manchester showroom in 1952. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum
Michael Mohammed, director of L’Equipment Des Arts, who was instrumental in getting Juda’s work on show and collaborated with the Jewish Museum on this exhibition, admits that she found it hard to reassess her photographs.
“She was very down-to-earth about her work and very reserved about looking at it as art,” he says. “She was hesitant about that.”
While going through the archive with Juda, however, he recalled there were many light moments. She would tease him with: “I am 97, I could drop dead at any moment you had better get that work out there!” It should be added, however, that she was still walking to the top of Primrose Hill aged 96.
It took until 2009 for the first major exhibition of her work to take place when she was indeed 97.
Juda died in 2014 aged 103 and the story goes that in her will she left £10,000 “to have a big party” after her death.
“She was clearly an incredible character,” says Joanne.
Once, when Juda was asked just how she was able to magic such fantastical shoots on a shoestring, she replied with a smile: “Originality doesn’t cost anything.”
• Elsbeth Juda: Grit and Glamour is at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, NW1 until July 1. See www.jewishmuseum.org.uk