A photographer with a keen eye, Eli Lotar has been given full recognition in an exhibition of rare beauty at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Comprising 100 photos, viewers are taken on a journey through the avant-garde, devilishly modern and surprisingly surreal work of this contemporary photographer.
French photographer and cinematographer of Romanian origin, Eli Lotar (Eliazar Lotar Teodorescu, Paris, 1905-1969) arrived in France in 1924 and rapidly became one of the first avant-garde photographers in Paris.
Close to Germaine Krull – Lotar worked as her apprentice for a time – and later to the Surrealists, his work was published in many of the avant-garde publications of the day and featured in several major international photography exhibitions, including Fotographie der Gegenwart, Film und Foto and Documents de la vie sociale.
The Eli Lotar Retrospective (1905-1969) allows visitors to discover the scope of Lotar’s work from a new light and reveals the role of this important figure in modern photography.
The exhibition is organised around key themes, ranging from the New Vision Movement to documentary film as well as Lotar’s urban, industrial and maritime landscapes.
A selection of portraits taken by the photographer can also be seen, revealing his interest in having his models adopt various poses for the camera. They also demonstrate the close ties he had to many of the leading artists of his day.
Lotar’s social and political interests and his penchant for collective projects can be revealed in his numerous collaborations with avant-garde writers (Jacques Prévert, Georges Bataille, and the magazine, Documents), as well as figures from the world of theatre (Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac) and well-known film directors (Joris Ivens, Alberto Cavalcanti and Luis Buñuel), all of whom were affected by the troubled socio-political climate of the 1930s.
The exhibition brings together more than 100 vintage prints taken from approximately 15 different collections and international institutions as well as a selection of a hundred or so documents (books, magazines, letters, negatives, films) illustrating the diversity and scope of Lotar’s work.
The exhibition is organised into five thematic sections. The work, however, is not necessarily presented in chronological order. The first two sections – Nouvelle Vision and Déambulations urbaines – are devoted to Lotar’s documentary photography, primarily for the illustrated press. The public is plunged into the universe of the photographer, who had become known for the singularity of his work since the late 1920s.
Reproductions of period magazines (VU, L’Art Vivant, Arts et Métiers Graphiques and Jazz, Bifur) show a selection of some of Lotar’s numerous publications from the period.
The vintage prints and photographs reproduced from negatives as well as the documents on show in these two sections illustrate Lotar’s talent and reputation among European avant-garde photographers.
Drawn to the world of cinema, from 1929 onwards, Lotar participated in the production of a number of documentary films, working alongside film-makers like Joris Ivens and Luis Buñuel.
The third section of the exhibition is devoted to Lotar’s socio-political work through a selection of photographs and films that capture the social and political complexity of the interwar period, as may be seen, for example, in the crude realism of his series on Abattoirs (1929) or through his collaboration on Terre sans pain (1933) – the only documentary produced by Luis Buñuel.
Lotar’s contribution to Modernism has benefited from a belated recognition
The film showed the deplorable living conditions of the inhabitants of the remote and arid region of Las Hurdes in Spain. Lotar’s involvement with film-makers working in the emerging documentary genre would have a strong impact on his own career.
After the war, he would produce Aubervilliers (1945), a poetic documentary on the life of those living in the slums of this particular area of the French capital.
The last two sections of the exhibition focus on Lotar’s rewarding artistic and literary friendships throughout his life. Viewers can see rare images from his travels as well as a series of images depicting various figures from Antonin Artaud’s Théâtre d’Alfred Jarry playfully posing for the camera.
In his collaboration with numerous artists, playwrights and poets, Lotar put his artistic and technical knowhow to use (particularly in terms of lighting and framing), both in his travels around the Mediterranean region with Jacques-Bernard Brunius and Roger Vitrac and his photomontages for Antonin Artaud’s Théâtre Alfred Jarry.
Lotar’s contribution to Modernism has benefited from a belated recognition. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that a first retrospective was devoted to the artist’s work at the Centre Pompidou. Since then, greater research into the fields of Surrealism and interwar photography, as well as cinema, has allowed experts and the public alike to consider Lotar’s work in a new light and to appreciate the singularity of his career and visual universe.
This retrospective was co-produced by the Jeu de Paume and the Centre Pompidou Paris and includes work from the photographic archives of the Centre Pompidou as well as vintage prints from a variety of international institutions and collections.
Youth and a precocious artistic talent allowed Lotar to make a name for himself and to quickly stand out from the pioneers of modern photography practising in Paris at the end of the 1920s.
His work was shown in 1929 at the exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart, alongside other Parisian gures such as André Kertész, Man Ray and Germaine Krull, from whom he had learned his technical skills.
The changing city of Paris – a combination of old and modern, rich and poor, the possibilities offered by night or by day, photographed at ground-level or from above – provided this young photographer with the ideal subject matter.
Lotar had just arrived from Bucharest and was looking to put forward his own distinctive voice, one that was anchored in reality. Initially, Lotar shared the use of Germaine Krull’s famous Ikarette before buying his own Ermanox camera. With this he was able to capture a surprising range of shots, including his photograph of legs taken at the crowded Foire de Paris (fair) in 1928. Vacillating between realism and a certain dream-like quality, Lotar’s fascination for the city was shared by the Surrealist avant-garde, a group with which Lotar had close connections, although he was never an official member.
Between 1928 and 1929, Lotar carried out several photo features for the magazine VU. This work was followed by a period of intense activity until 1932.
Lotar’s documentary photo reportage was published in magazines such as Variétés, Détective, Jazz and Bifur.
At this time, Lotar was involved with Joris Ivens’ documentary film project Zuiderzeewerken (1930).
Lotar’s career was entirely focused on the cinema from the mid-1930s onwards. He worked on projects with numerous film-makers, as well as a number of personal projects and commissions until his death. Some of these films have been lost, but working versions of others remain.
The exhibition allows viewers to watch the only film for which Lotar received true recognition as a film-maker: Aubervilliers (1945).
The 1920s and 1930s were a period of intense photographic activity during which Lotar travelled on numerous occasions throughout France and around the Mediterranean. From these trips Lotar brought back countless images of maritime landscapes and port scenes, a theme that was in vogue at that time.
The exhibition concludes with a look at the photographer in his intellectual and artistic milieu. Lotar had many close connections to the world of theatre. In 1931, his collaboration with Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac for the Théâtre Alfred Jarry proved to be the most accomplished and original work carried out by Lotar for the theatre. Lotar created photographs using photomontages, generating a hallucinatory and dynamic effect.
The Eli Lotar Retrospective runs at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until May.