The Pick - Ida Kar, Bohemian Photographer, 1908-74

March 10, 2011

Credit: Self-portrait/Ida Kar/National Portrait Gallery

Ida Kar, Bohemian Photographer, 1908-74

National Portrait Gallery, London

From 10 March until 19 June

Novelist Iris Murdoch kneels by a bed and stares at the camera with a rare intensity, scraps of manuscript in front of her, the crumpled pillow behind her resembling an angel's wing. A genial, pipe-smoking Bertrand Russell poses for the sculptor Jacob Epstein as a far more self-consciously "noble" bust takes shape between them. Photographer Cecil Beaton stands dapper in the conservatory of his Wiltshire home.

Ida Kar has good claims to the title of "bohemian photographer". She was born in Russia to Armenian parents and brought up in Yerevan and then Cairo. Although she went to Paris to study medicine and chemistry, she soon gravitated towards musical and artistic circles such as the Surrealists. She later married a London gallery owner, took in the "outsider" novelist Colin MacInnes as a lodger and spent much of her time hanging out in the bars, cafés and clubs of Soho.

Although Kar produced some striking documentary images from Cuba and the Soviet Union, and a series on zoos when she got fed up with men, most of the photographs on display here feature the cultural stars of her day.

Utterly at home in the world of artists and writers, she tends to depict them sympathetically but unheroically, as tough manual workers, turned in on themselves, dwarfed by their work or lost amid the domestic clutter of their studios. One critic described how Kar got the job done in half an hour: "She talks rapidly while looking around, then starts shooting a single roll of film of only twelve shots...She relies mostly on available natural light and likes strong contrasts." Yet the results were "simple, powerful, unaffected but often dramatic".

In 1999, the National Portrait Gallery purchased the Ida Kar archive, including 800 prints, 10,000 negatives and 400 contact sheets. It has chosen more than 70 photographs for an exhibition that forms part of a series celebrating outstanding women photographers from Julia Margaret Cameron to Lee Miller and Annie Leibovitz.

Running alongside it until 30 May is an exhibition titled Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street.

E.O. Hoppé (1878-1972) was one of the pioneering celebrity photographers, so this show also includes many images of leading cultural figures of an earlier era - among them Margot Fonteyn, George Bernard Shaw, Vaslav Nijinsky and Ezra Pound - as well as politicians and heads of state. He achieved both fame and notoriety for his Book of Fair Women (1922), which presented images of 32 women from 24 countries whom he considered the most beautiful on earth.

Hoppé later began to spend much more time out of his studio exploring less glitzy strands of English life such as a girls' borstal, a dogs' hospital, a tattoo parlour and a skeleton shop.

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