The National Portrait Gallery, London, reopens in June following a three-year closure for the “largest redevelopment” in its 127-year history. Its opening exhibition, Yevonde: Life and Colour, will be the most comprehensive to date on British photographer, Yevonde Middleton (1893-1975).
In 1921, she became the first woman to lecture at the Professional Photographers’ Association. In the 1930s – against a tide of resistance – she championed the use of color photography and was the first person in Britain to exhibit color portraits.
Over a 60-year career, Yevonde photographed the rich and famous. Around 10,000 sitters passed through her studios. She also ran a successful commercial photography business until the year before her death, shortly before her 83rd birthday.
From her teens, Yevonde was an advocate of women’s suffrage and was active in the Women’s Social and Political Union, the militant wing of the suffrage movement, from 1909.
However, a personal disinclination for suffragette lawbreaking (and the prison sentence that would likely follow) led her to champion women’s emancipation via a different route.
In her autobiography, In camera (1940), she remembers thinking at age 17: “I must earn my own living … To be independent was the greatest thing in life”.
It was an advertisement in suffrage newspaper Votes for Women, that gave Yevonde the idea that photography could offer economic independence.
Yevonde’s only formal training was an apprenticeship to Charlotte (Lallie) Charles (1911-13). Despite not finishing, and taking only one photograph throughout, it gave her the fundamentals to start a photographic business.
In 1914, having just turned 21 – and with some funding from her family – she opened her first studio.
Color Photography and Innovation
Yevonde’s decision to set out on her own coincided with the decline of Lallie Charles’ studio. This reflected a widespread malaise in photographic portraiture, which was at that time stylistically confined to long-established conventions of black and white.
She explained that clients were: “Getting tired of the pale soft … prints, tired of the artificial roses, of the Empire furniture … They grumbled at the lack of variety in the poses.”
Seeing an opportunity to try something different, she developed a more dynamic approach and style, establishing a moderately successful business despite the disruption of the first world war and a stint as a land worker.
But it was with the advent of Vivex – a technically demanding process for coloring photographs – around 1930, that Yevonde’s breakthrough came, despite strong resistance to color photography from within the profession and potential clients.
“I started experimenting madly”, she remembered in her autobiography, “oblivious of the fact that people did not want such things.”
She believed that photographers had become:
So engrossed in the beauty of light and shade and in their deep velvety blacks and sparkling whites that they will tell you quite seriously that the color photograph is unnecessary and unnatural.
At the same time, Yevonde was excited to discover that a few studios were beginning to explore the new process, despite feeling that their preoccupation with achieving naturalistic color rendered everything “astonishingly unattractive”.
She declared that her priority was to use color differently, to “produce a striking and original picture”.
Yevonde’s Goddesses Series
Yevonde’s most famous project – the Goddesses Series of 1935 – was inspired by a charity ball. Soon after she photographed several society women in the guise of a mythological goddess. Each woman was furnished with props derived from Yevonde’s, sometimes whimsical, interpretation of their attributes.
For me, the series reveals both the extent and the limits of her pioneering spirit.
Despite her attempts to renegotiate the conventions of her time, Yevonde – ever the expedient businesswoman – was mindful of her client’s wishes, the majority of whom were female. As a result, many of her subjects align with the prevailing expectations of beauty and behavior: looking sultry but with a submissive air, gazing wistfully out of the frame.
But in other examples, the women she photographed appeared liberated from the shackles of expectations for their sex. There’s daring composition and movement in the representation of Ariel and the confrontational gaze of Medusa.
In other work, an audacious use of saturated primary color is highly effective, as in the portrait of actress Vivien Leigh.
In her photograph of actress Joan Maude, a vibrant palette of reds is brought together in a single image. This shows an industrious photographer thrilled with the possibilities offered by the new color technology.
Sadly, with the outbreak of the second world war, Vivex ceased trading and Yevonde was obliged to return to black and white.
Throughout her career, Yevonde sought to promote and motivate other women photographers, encouraging them to “come out and meet one another” and to “join the association” of photographers.
“We must see one another’s work and criticize, and, more important still, receive criticism,” she wrote in her autobiography, “or we shall never improve”.
Most previous exhibitions have favored Yevonde’s Goddesses Series. The planned show at the reopened Portrait Gallery, however, will broaden the scope considerably and include some newly discovered works.
As much as I love Yevonde’s use of color, I am looking forward to seeing her later portraits in black and white and her practice of bringing elements of surrealism into her portraiture and other commercial work.
Yevonde: Life and Colour will be at the National Portrait Gallery, 22 June to 15 October 2023.
About the author: Darcy White is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at Sheffield Hallam University. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was originally published at The Conversation and is being republished under a Creative Commons license.