South Australian-born photographer Anton Bruehl captured some of the brightest stars from the golden years of Hollywood and ran one of the most famous photographic studios in America yet remains relatively unknown here. A National Gallery of Australia exhibition currently on at the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) hopes to rectify this situation.
In 1919, while still just a teenager, Anton Bruehl left Melbourne for a new life in New York. He worked successfully as an engineer for a few years until deciding to pursue his interest in photography. Bruehl studied under impressionist-style Pictorialist photographer Clarence H. White, a renowned artist who encouraged many of his students to focus on the commercial aspects of photography at a time when advertising was moving away from the drawn image.
In 1926 Bruehl opened his own studio focusing on magazine advertising and it was immediately successful, establishing his name as a pioneer in the ground-breaking field of creating high quality colour reproductions for magazines. His work would go on to appear in top magazines of the 1930s to 1950s such as Vanity Fair, Vogue and House and Garden. Spanning four decades, the advertising work on display in the MGA exhibition ranges from stark modernist images to quirky pictures of broccoli spears dressed as ballerinas.
A poster advertising the Anton Bruehl exhibition outside the cafe at the Monash Gallery of Art
Bruehl also built a reputation as an art photographer and this aspect of his career is also examined. He was not afraid of pushing boundaries. For example, the image 'Model Ruth Curlett in Red Sun Hat' (1936) was intended to appear on the cover of Vogue but was deemed too risqué for the time and had to be moved inside the magazine. Curlett defended Bruehl, stating, 'I was adequately clad in Bruehl's best shadows'.
Image by Anton Bruehl taken from the National Gallery of Art website nga.gov.au. Provenance: Anton Bruehl Jr, San Francisco; Estate of Anton Bruehl.
A highlight of the exhibition is in spotting the range of famous faces Bruehl captured, including Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Fontaine and Gene Tierney. All are shot in carefully staged portraits. His series of children participating in seasonal activities for the popular magazine Pictorial Review are incredibly vivid and beautifully composed. In contrast, but similarly striking, is the series of sombre black and white documentary images of Mexico.
For those interested in art, photography, advertising, drama or mid-20th century history, a visit to In the spotlight: Anton Bruehl photographs 1920s–1950s is well worth your time. Take a few hours to examine the outstanding work of this innovative photographer and you will come away impressed and inspired. The exhibition is on at the MGA until 11 September 2011.