As art director of Harper’s Bazaar from 1938 to 1958, Alexey Brodovitch revolutionised the design of the magazine. A Russian émigré, he had fled to Paris in 1920, and like many formerly wealthy emigrants, he ended up having to work for a living. Already immersed in the diverse art scene in Paris, as a stage painter for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Brodovitch was exposed to the ballet impressario’s ideas about design and, of course, to ballet itself.
His talent and innovative output resulted in Harper’s Bazaar offering him a job and he put what he had learned in the Parisian art melting pot to good use. During the mid-1930s, Brodovitch went to see visiting ballet productions in New York, bringing along his 35mm Contax camera. His photographs were intended to be souvenirs, but Brodovitch, visual artist that he was, tried to capture ballet the way he saw it, by whatever means possible or necessary.
Despite the slow film speeds of the time, Brodovitch did not use a flash. If things were blurry then that only reflected the fluidity and the movement of ballet. In the darkroom, he continued to work with his images; cropping them relentlessly; burning and dodging as much as was needed to replicate what he had seen.
In 1945, Brodovitch compiled the photographs into a photobook entitled Ballet, which has been re-published as a book within a book by New York’s Errata Editions. The original publication had an edition size of 500 and was not sold in major bookshops; two fires at the artist’s houses destroyed the majority of the negatives, plus the remaining copies of the book.
This would make for an interesting story on its own, but the book in question might actually be one of the most inspiring and, certainly, groundbreaking photobooks ever published. We are all photographers now, but back then only ‘real’ photographers could call themselves that. Ballet is a photobook by a visual artist who had no respect for the photograph, or negative, as an object. Instead, what mattered for Brodovitch was the image. And the way he pieced these images together was truly astounding. Ballet was very much ahead of its time, in almost every respect.
Errata Editions has been re-publishing out-of-print photobooks for a few years. The books are presented on the page: when you open an Errata edition, you are looking at spreads of the original. In the case of Ballet, there is really no other choice given that most of the original negatives were destroyed (and even if all of the negatives still existed, reproducing Brodovitch’s images would be a highly complex process).
In addition to the spreads, the reader also gets the original essay from Ballet by dance critic Edwin Denby, plus two recent texts by Jeffrey Ladd and Kerry W Purcell which describe the book and its background.
Comparing Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet with an album by The Velvet Underground might be a bit of a cliché, but it is apt nonetheless: both were so far ahead of their time that modern audiences will find much to enjoy.