Captivating Celebrity Portraits from Camera Press’ Archives

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Grace Jones pictured at Studio 54, New York, 1981© Adrian Boot/Camera Press

A new exhibition showcases the best of the feted photo agency’s archive, featuring everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe to Andy Warhol and Grace Jones

In 1935, Tom Blau, a young Hungarian Jew, fled his native Berlin for London. Once there, he wasted no time in pursuing his love of photography, first securing a job as a freelance image researcher before helping to establish the renowned international photo library, Pictorial Press. Blau himself was a keen image-maker, and upon securing British citizenship at the end of the Second World War, decided to launch his own independent photo agency, Camera Press, to represent and sell both his own work and that of those he admired.

His sense of timing and knack for talent spotting were impeccable. The agency was founded in 1947, the year that Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were married, and Blau was the first to distribute pictures of the prestigious event – marking the start of an enduring relationship between Camera Press and the British royals. Blau approached Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh as his inaugural contributing photographer, and helped launch the celebrated portraitist to worldwide fame. Before long, the Camera Press family grew, its roster expanding to include such dazzling pioneers as Lord Snowdon, Baron and Cecil Beaton. 70 years on, and the agency remains at the top of its game: it is one of the few surviving independent agencies in the world – it is still run by the Blau family, with Tom’s granddaughter Emma now at its helm – and continues to represent some of photography’s most accomplished contemporary proponents, from John Swannell and Chris Floyd to Eamonn McCabe.

This week marks the opening of a new London exhibition in honour of Camera Press’ milestone anniversary, offering visitors the chance to take in the very best of its archive, from the 1940s right through to the present day. The show is masterminded by Emma Blau, herself a photographer and curator, who took on the mammoth task of sifting through the some 12 million archive images to select the most striking works – “the ones which have helped to shape the history of photography itself,” she tells us. It is a breathtaking array: a veritable masterclass in celebrity portraiture. There’s Beaton’s famous image of the Queen, taken on her coronation day, golden sceptre in hand, swathed in embroidered silk and lavish fur; a beguiling shot of Marilyn Monroe, playfully dipping a pedicured toe into a garden pond; John Lennon leaning in to plant a soft kiss on Yoko’s lips and Andy Warhol clutching a camera to his ear as if to heed its guidance.

Each image serves to capture the zeitgeist of its individual decade, both in terms of subject and spirit. Elegant, formal portraits give way to intimate snapshots which in turn transform into scenes of reckless abandon (a 90s Grace Jones joyously cavorting, one breast exposed, on the Studio 54 dance floor, for example). The contemporary works on show demonstrate a renewed air of restraint, but prove no less vital: Zadie Smith reclines dreamily in a leather arm chair, while Gilbert and George stand arm to arm, seen from behind against a black backdrop that accentuates their difference in height and matching bald patches. “I hope that viewers get a feel for the fantastic breadth of material that Camera Press represents,” Blau muses when asked her ambitions for the show, “and that they enjoy the rare treat of seeing the actual physical prints of so many iconic images.” And there’s no doubt, on either front, that her hopes will be realised.

Camera Press at 70 – A Lifetime in Pictures is at Art Bermondsey Project Space, London until June 10, 2017.