Hoppé Portraits book review

I was introduced to Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972) through the OCA course material and he has since become something of a special interest; I had never come across him before; I found the story of fame lost after his own generation fascinating (it is often the other way around with artists); and his body of work is inspiring.

Hoppé portraits: Society, studio and street is a book published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany their 2011 Hoppé exhibition. It contains 150 portraits, an essay by Phillip Prodger on Hoppé personality and type, and a biography by Terence Pepper. Both the photos and the text are very well done, making the book an excellent reference for Hoppé’s portraits.

Hoppé was a famous society photography, the choice of the wealthy, the stars and the powerful to promote their own images. His list of sitters read like a who’s who of Western society, from George Bernard Shaw and David Lloyd George to Benito Mussolini. Prodger explains that it was this ‘extraordinary access to leaders in various professions prompted him [Hoppé] to consider whether they might share common characteristics.’ It was a fascination with types and psychology, which ‘became one of the hallmarks of his career’. This theme continued beyond the studio into the artist’s work with street photography.

Prodger comments that although Hoppé’s work was often cropped in publications to show head shots, the originals were wide enough to capture the hands, which is often a distinguishing feature of his portraits. I note that this was also common in August Sander’s work (see post here), who was also notable for his typology. This interest is perhaps because it is the hands that allow a person to do the type of work for which they have become known; the tools of the trade so to speak.

A few general observations on the photographs in the book:

  • It is clear that early works were heavily influenced by the pictorialist movement and, indeed, Hoppé mentions Julia Margaret Cameron as an influence. There is a soft charcoal-like appearance to monochrome. Later works are sharply focused and modern.
  • Unlike in Sander’s work, there is a vast variety in the way Hoppé poses his subjects and captures their gaze. He is aiming to reveal something of their personalities, rather than document a type. Hoppé discusses this aspect in some detail in his autobiography, which I will visit in a future post.
  • The way Hoppé positions his sitters in the frame is as if he were studying a landscape; what aspect does he want to show and what point of view is needed to show it. There is no falling back on a formulaic approach to sitting.
  • Similarly with the gaze of his sitters; while some look directly into the camera, others look away, lost in their own thoughts, as if we are viewing a private moment when they are lost in their own being, their own personality, rather than acting for the camera. As I’ll cover when writing about Hoppé’s biography, he waits for these moments to occur during his dialogue with his sitters.

For my own practice, there are some valuable lessons here for setting up formal portraiture sessions.


Hoppé, E.O., Prodger, P. and Pepper, T. 2010. Hoppe portraits: Society, studio and street. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications.
National Portrait Gallery [online]. Hoppe portraits: Society, studio and street. Available from: http://www.npg.org.uk/hoppe/exhibition.html [accessed 27.7.16]


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