Yevonde Life and Colour exhibition is back at the National Portrait Gallery in style

A long-overdue exhibit of the photography of the photographer Yevonde Middleton (1893-1975) is now open in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), London. Yevonde Middleton: and Colour and Colour is the first major exhibit since the gallery opened its doors following a three-year restoration.

Through her entire life, Yevonde was a vocal advocate for women. As a young woman, she was an active woman’s suffragette. She also fought for women in photography throughout her lengthy and successful career, earning the respect of many within her own time. She is known best as a social portraitist and the first pioneer of color photography at an era when commercial photography was a new concept and there was a general skepticism regarding its benefits.

Actress Vivien Leigh was photographed by Yevonde (1936). National Portrait Gallery

Part of the Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture project, this exhibition, along with other initiatives, will signal the gallery’s desire to increase its representation of females in its collections and exhibits.

What are the main things to attend from the show?

The viewer is taken through the chronology of his career that was born in. Initial, timid portraits of the society of black and white are replaced by the confident performance of a number of famous subjects, including the actress Florence Lambert and actor, musician and actor Paul Robeson.

Read more: Yevonde: an introduction to the woman who pioneered colour photography

The show details her groundbreaking work from the advent of the first commercially available professional color printing process, the Vivex color process , around 1930. This process used three negatives, one for each primary color, which was processed separately and then printed, one on top of the other, by hand to achieve a perfect registration of the final print. Many of the prints on display have been framed in a way that visitors can see the edges – revealing the three color separations and swatches .

Yevonde was eventually back into black and white, but with the beginning of the Second World war, Vivex ended trading.

Edward James Portrait by Yevonde (1933). National Portrait Gallery

Energy and passion for life emanate from her most well-known collection, The Goddesses, which was the result of a charity gala that was held in 1935 and attended by social women dressed in mythological figures from antiquity in the west.

There are many examples of Yevonde’s commercial work for publications as well as book covers as well as her distinctive ” still-life phantasies” each one of which plays on her experience with surrealism.

Always trying to change her style, her new ideas include double portraits (typically with couples), as well as later experiments using solarisation (a technique in the darkroom that is used for reverse tones), are reminiscent of the earlier art that Man Ray and Lee Miller did. A stunning photograph of the younger Judi Dench can be one of the best examples.

Yevonde’s muses

Yevonde was mostly focused on the lives and pursuits of successful and wealthy women such as wives and wives; however, more importantly, women who were professionals such as journalists, authors dan, cars models, actresses, and models, as well as adventurers. The portrait she painted of racing pilot and driver Jill Scott is one of the most notable examples.

Margaret Sweeny by Yevonde (1938). National Portrait Gallery

The show’s strength lies in its recognition of the fact that artwork is an interdependent process. Yevonde is the center of the show, but others contribute to the performance.

I spoke to the curator, Clare Freestone, and Katayoun Dowlatshahi, who is the artist responsible for creating some of the prints in color that are on display. Dowlatshahi was chosen to share her knowledge of the process of carbon transfer in color to replicate the look that is created by a Vivex process.

To achieve the hue Yevonde wanted was not easy. In the time Yevonde worked in 1930, color photography was evolving and constantly changing. The way she worked was not consistent for various reasons. From the beginning, Yevonde approached color experimentally because of its artistic and compositional potential, often by using colored light sources, filters, and transparencies.

Dowlatshahi’s objective was to find the closest equivalents of colors to those that were used during the 30s. She explained to me: “It felt really important to understand the colours, the pigments … used at the time.” Modern colors were not suitable. The process took “a constant learning curve – everything had to be checked and checked again.” A range of four to six prints per image was created to ensure the right balance of colors.

Katayoun Dowlatshahi at her studio. Clare Freestone

The process of producing 25 completed prints, which also included initial research, lasted seven months. The method showed the fact that “everything that Yevonde did was purposeful and deliberate.” She didn’t leave anything up to chance and provided exact instructions to printers of Vivex.

However, some of Yevonde’s portraits could be a disappointment to contemporary expectations. Her early photographs of famous women, particularly in color, seldom provide a glimpse into the inner world of the model. In studio portraiture such as this, it was commonplace to do a great deal of retouching in order to “improve” the subject’s appearance and still retain a basic resemblance. Yevonde is a good example within the autobiography In Camera (1940).

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