Henri Dauman is one of the world’s most preeminent photographers, working with the likes of JFK, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Miles Davis, Yves Saint-Laurent and many, many more.
However, since Dauman came of age during a time when photographers weren’t widely recognized for their exceptional works, he’s not necessarily a household name, as he well deserves to be.
Dauman, who was born in 1933 in Montmartre, France, overcame tremendous tragedy, losing both parents in World War II, which meant he quickly had to learn to rely on himself at a very young age. This perseverance led to a photography career that is quite remarkable.
The photographer was featured in his first solo exhibition in 2014, and his photos have been showcased in several more since. Now his extraordinary life is the subject of the directorial debut of Peter Kenneth Jones’ Henri Dauman: Looking Up, which will make its world premiere at the 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Dauman, who splits his time between Manhattan and Hampton Bays, and Dauman’s granddaughter, Nicole Suerez, about his astounding career, fate, and more.
You address it a bit in the movie, but could you please speak about what compelled you to allow this film to be made?
HD: I did not have much of a choice. My granddaughter Nicole was one of the film’s producers. She stumbled upon my testimonial in 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. She had no knowledge of the existence of this interview. I believed that only scholars and researchers had access to this video, but apparently it is in Jerusalem unbeknownst to me. I had kept that story all to myself and when she saw it, she was compelled to tell my story. She was so moved by it and I agreed to it because I thought it would be a great testimony to transmit the memories for future generations.
As a perfectionist, how challenging was it to handover control to the filmmakers?
HD: It’s not easy. I didn’t give them full control.
In the film, you said while wearing a camera around your neck, you feel invisible. Is that what initially attracted you to photography?
HD: No, no, no. Not at all. It’s just one of the results of practicing the trade. But, no I did not get into photography to overcome my fears. It was an expression. I really wanted to make films. In those days, in the ’50s, the industry was very hard to penetrate. So I started to take photographs. I just enjoyed it as a means of expression.
How did moving to New York impact your photography?
HD: A lot because all of the sudden I was in the land that I was dreaming about while seeing American movies. When I was a child I went quite a bit to the movies and saw a lot of American movies. I said, ‘My god, I finally landed in Hollywood-land.’ I was very impressed with the skyscrapers, the size of the city, which was different than Paris which is smaller on the human scale. Here, everything was large. That’s when I started to take pictures of New York looking up. I laid the camera down everywhere I could, where I saw an interesting graphic design and kept taking pictures looking up. That was my first impression of New York, the tall buildings.
Do you have a favorite subject to capture?
HD: Yes, my favorite is always the last assignment.
HD: It keeps changing rapidly. If you had seen my schedule… now I’m not so active, but at that time I would go from a Mediterranean country doing a story on Club Med to taking pictures of some movie star. I decided to specialize in all subjects. Many people specialize in one, I couldn’t specialize in one because I’m interested in everything that’s around me. One day I might do a travel story, another a glamour story, another day maybe the funeral of JFK, which I was called on that day in 1963. I was buying new furniture for an apartment we were furnishing, all of the sudden I get a call that I should go to Washington immediately. The assignments varied greatly.
Is there anyone you haven’t photographed yet that you would like to work with?
HD: Of course. I took a lot of people, but I did not collect them all. You cannot do them all in a lifetime. Impossible, right? But I did quite a bit. It’s interesting because it ranged from highbrow people to poverty in the Bronx, a great variety of stuff.
Your goal was to show whom the subject really was. When you’re shooting someone who you just met, how do you accomplish that?
HD: It’s not easy. You try to put people at easy by having a one on one conversation and trying to learn quickly about the subject. I’m not afraid to divulge about me either. They can learn quickly who I am and what I’m trying to do. Trying to establish a relationship, it was easier when I was working for Life who had the means to do a story that would drag over a week, ten days, or more sometimes – that’s even better. One such case is the story of Marshall Mcluhan, a professor in Toronto who had written a few books on understanding medium, the medium as the message. It was interesting because during our conversation, we were discussing his work, and he was telling me about what he was working on and he was really, I found out later when I understood it, that he was talking about all the things we are doing today. He was talking about computers getting smaller, and the message was the medium is the message. He predicted what is taking place today, but that was like 50 years ago.
Do you have any idea how many photos you’ve taken throughout your career?
HD: Over a million.
What was it like to revisit your works for the film?
HD: Revisiting the pictures is not so difficult, but what I did not foresee is for the film I had to go back in time and recollect very painful memories that I thought were buried in my mind. So that was painful. I had never spoken about it.
NS: Specifically for his first show in 2014 at the Palais in France, that was the first time he had seen his work in such a huge scale – 240 of his prints up on the wall. It was interesting to see people reflect from an artist standpoint versus just seeing them in their magazines at home during the time and how his work has evolved from a news photograph to supplement a story to actual pieces of art now with the passage of time. I think with that he was surprised to see people leaving the show in tears and being able to see people actually react versus people doing it in the privacy of their own homes during the time.
HD: Yes, I always thought that the picture that I was taking, making were good for covers of magazines or layouts and stuff like that. I didn’t realize that they would still generate the emotions that I saw at my first show in 2014.
What does it mean to you that your work still resonates deeply with people, many, many years after these photographs were initially taken?
HD: I’m very pleased because I thought my work was fading away, but apparently, unbeknownst to me, I had covered a great story overall of the evolution of the United States from the ’50s to the ’80s. I didn’t know it at the time, but I did so many varied stories – whether it’s a civil rights story or shooting Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot, when you add up all the stories, it added up to a narrative history of the United States.
Do you still shoot?
HD: I do, but in limited ways.
What’s your camera of choice?
HD: Even though I do use a little bit of digital, I still shoot with a Leica.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
NS: The subjects he photographed pretty much enriched his life. He’s exposed to top of everything and I think in a way he never had any formal education on photography or just standard school, so photographing was his education. I think he benefited greatly by meeting all these people from all spectrums of life for his actual education.
HD: That was my university of life.
One of the reasons as well that I did the film was to tell a World War II episode that was painful to a lot of people, but getting forgotten by many people, particularly the new generation. As people like me are getting older and dying off, there will not be any witnesses of what took place. This is what allowed me to discover America. When I arrived there on December 1950. Life is very strange that way. All of this, this is the amazing miracle that by going to memory, my life was spared sometime. Life and death was razor thin. It was a latch at the door, a double latch that my mother installed at the door of my apartment, they could not bring the door down when they tried to come and arrest us. Or a German plane who was tracking us in the garden and killed the cat that I was holding and I got spared, which allowed me to come to the United States by myself. You will see in the movie I tell that the miracle is that at the opening of the 2014 show, there were about 50 people, family members, which have been created since 1950 when I arrived alone. This is the real miracle. I was always impressed with Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. Only a miracle leads to a happy ending and this is a happy ending.
Henri Dauman: Looking Up will screen at East Hampton UA (30 Main Street, East Hampton) on Saturday, October 6 at 5:30 p.m. and again at Southampton UA (43 Hill Street, Southampton) on Sunday, October 7 at 3:30 p.m.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.