Not until she came to the Bauhaus did Florence Henri come in contact with photography. The painter entered uncharted territory by earning a living with a photo studio of her own after she returned to Paris. In her photos, Henri expanded perspectives through reflections, overlapping and penetrations.
Florence Henri was born in New York on 28 June 1893; her father was French and her mother was German. Following her mother’s death in 1895, she and her father moved first to her mother’s family in Silesia; she later lived in Paris, Munich and Vienna and finally moved to the Isle of Wight in England in 1906. After her father’s death there three years later, Florence Henri lived in Rome with her aunt Anni and her husband, the Italian poet Gino Gori, who was in close touch with the Italian Futurists. She studied piano at the music conservatory in Rome.
During a visit to Berlin, Henri started to focus on painting, after meeting the art critic Carl Einstein and, through him, Herwarth Walden and other Berlin artists. In 1914, she enrolled at the Academy of Art in Berlin, and starting in 1922, trained in the studio of the painter Johannes Walter-Kurau. Before moving to Dessau, Henri studied painting with the Purists Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant at the Académie Moderne in Paris. She arrived at the Bauhaus in Dessau in April 1927. She had already met the Bauhaus artists Georg Muche and László Moholy-Nagy and had developed a passion for Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture. Up to July 1927, Henri attended the preliminary course directed by Moholy-Nagy, lived in the Hungarian artist’s house, and became a close friend of his first wife, Lucia Moholy, who encouraged her to take up photography. From the Moholy-Nagys, Henri learned the basic technical and visual principles of the medium, which she used in her initial photographic experiments after leaving Dessau. In early 1928, she abandoned painting altogether and from then on focused on photography, with which she established herself as a professional freelance photographer with her own studio in Paris – despite being self-taught.
Even during her first productive year as a photographer, László Moholy-Nagy published one of her unusual self-portraits, as well as a still life with balls, tyres, and a mirror, in 'i10. internationale revue'.The first critical description of her photographic work, which Moholy-Nagy wrote to accompany the photos, recognizes that her pictures represented an important expansion of the entire ‘problem of manual painting’, in which ‘reflections and spatial relationships, overlapping and penetrations are examined from a new perspectival angle’.
Mirrors become the most important feature in Henri’s first photographs. She used them both for most of her self-dramatizations and also for portraits of friends, as well as for commercial shots. She took part in the international exhibition entitled ‘Das Lichtbild’ [The Photograph] in Munich in 1930, and the following year she presented her images of bobbins at a ‘Foreign Advertising Photography’ exhibition in New York. The artistic quality of her photographs was compared with Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy and Adolphe Baron de Mayer, as well as the with winner of the first prize at the exhibition, Herbert Bayer. Only three years after the new photographer had taken her first pictures, her self-portrait achieved the equal status with her male colleagues that she had been aiming for.
Up to the start of the Second World War, Henri established herself as a skilled photographer with her own photographic studio in Paris (starting in 1929). When the city was occupied by the Nazis, her photographic work declined noticeably. The photographic materials needed were difficult to obtain, and in any case Henri’s photographic style was forbidden under the Nazi occupation; she turned her attention again to painting. With only a few later exceptions, the peak of her unique photographic experiments and professional photographic work was in the period from 1927 to 1930.
Even in the 1950s, Henri’s photographs from the Thirties were being celebrated as icons of the avant-garde. Her photographic oeuvre was recognized during her lifetime in one-woman exhibitions and publications in various journals, includingN-Z Wochenschau.She also produced photographs during this period, such as a series of pictures of the dancer Rosella Hightower. She died in Compiègne on 24 July 1982.
Brief von Florence Henri an Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, 11.2.1928, Paris, Scheper Estate, Berlin.
Dupont, Diana (1990): Florence Henri. Artist-Photographer of the Avant-Garde, San Francisco.
Hôtel des Arts & Giovanni Battista Martini (2010): Florence Henri. Parcours dans la Modernité – Peinture / Photographie 1918 > 1979, Toulon.
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2011): Die andere Seite des Mondes. Künstlerinnen der Avantgarde, Cologne.
Moholy-Nagy, László (1928): zu den fotografien von florence henri, in: i10 internationale revue, No. 17-18, issue XII, p. 117.
Molderings, Herbert (2008): Florence Henri. Der 'Esprit Nouveau' in der Fotografie, in: Molderings, Herbert (2008): Die Moderne der Fotografie, Hamburg.