Paul Huf (1924 – 2002). Top photographer of orchestrated beauty
By Ruud Lapré*
‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’
My earliest memories of photographer Paul Huf go back to my high school years when I lived in the south of the Netherlands. Eindhoven to be precise, the birthplace and headquarters of the international Philips concern. The colourful photographs of Paul Huf were used for the album covers of Philips’ classical music recordings. They were all the rage in those days. Although musically I much more preferred jazz and the emerging Rock-and-Roll, my room was filled with the album covers of Paul Huf. I had no problem taking down the images of flashy American limousines from my wall to make room for those. The album covers have now become much sought after collector’s items. From my days of adolescence I remember those romantic images: beautiful young ladies, civilized, well dressed, in attractive poses. Nearly fifty years later I saw those album covers again at an exhibition in the Jan van der Togt Museum in Amstelveen. They had not lost any of their attractiveness. The blonde on the cover of the Philips album with music of Chopin holds a wreath of daisies in her hand; the model on the album cover of the music of Schumann is surrounded by mimosas, while the model on the album cover of the music of Debussy looks at you through a bowl with a goldfish, full of expectation. Each and every photograph shows style and elegance and has been made with exceptional craftsmanship. Paul Huf’s style of photography is a reflection of the person he was: romantic and glamorous. This part of his works still reminds me of the words of the English poet John Keats (in those days compulsory reading at my high school): ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Its loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness. …’. In other words: beauty never loses its intrinsic value, it matures in the course of time. …
An orchestrated reality
In the title of this essay I call Paul Huf the ‘top photographer of orchestrated beauty’. What I mean to say is that Huf, like every true artist who excels in his class, manipulated the average reality to his own will. In a timeless manner, he created a new reality, one of success and glamour, even one of stillness. Orchestrated, because everything down to the smallest detail had been organised in his studio. Going against the socially critical stream, he had the courage to portrait an optimistic vision. I do not have the impression that he was tormented by questions such as: I feel like an artist, what should I do with that feeling; or, I want to be an artist, so I am condemned to making art. That certainly was not the case. He photographed because it had given him pleasure from the time he was a child. He carried out his profession with mastery and in his own stylish way. That approach appealed to both the general public and the elite. That is why even during his lifetime Paul Huf was able to look back on a successful career as an artist. His orchestrated reality did well in a society in which prosperity was increasing. The same holds true for Paul Huf’s visible optimistic attitude to life and this helped him accomplish success, both creatively and commercially. People who were successful or were in the public eye were only too happy to be photographed by him. For corporate international business too he was a popular creator of advertising photographs and commercials. An appealing and successful series of commercials for a Dutch beer brand (Grolsch) was entitled ‘Craftsmanship is Mastery’. Due to its cinematic qualities the series became a classic in the genre of the short commercials. They transcended the common associations related to commercialism and advertising, although that certainly was their purpose. The award-winning series, however, was also a celebration of craftsmanship carried out in a thorough, loving and passionate manner and was as such an ode to the noble craft. The commercials were Paul Huf all over.
The foresight of Joris Ivens
Although photography was Paul Huf’s first love, he made several other films which won him awards. He made a fascinating documentary for instance about the magical realist painter Carel Willink, for which he received international acclaim (United States, Italy). For KLM Royal Dutch Airlines he made a film called ‘Eye to Eye’ and a series of photographs about Vincent van Gogh. In those he was able to portrait the character and beauty that Van Gogh saw in people and landscapes. In a penetrating, conscious and thoughtful manner he managed to focus his camera on the atmosphere of the countryside where Van Gogh had lived and worked. There was of course an enormous contrast with his source of inspiration, the originally maligned and deeply depressed Vincent. After all one can hardly imagine a greater difference between him and Paul Huf who was celebrated during his life. However, they shared their keen eye for the atmospheric portrayal of people and landscapes, each in their own way. The great documentary maker and predecessor of Paul Huf, Joris Ivens, had early in Huf’s career a visionary view with regard to his cinematic qualities. When he received Ivens’ comments, Huf still only occupied himself with photography. Joris Ivens, who career-wise was ahead of his generation and was at the time more appreciated abroad than at home, had seen Huf’s photographs and spontaneously wrote an enthusiastic letter of recommendation. Based on the photographs, he anticipated Huf’s future cinematic qualities. It is worth mentioning that long before the partnership between the Wu Han Art Museum and the Jan van der Togt Museum, our Joris Ivens was a well-known artist in China because of the documentaries he made in and for the country. Once again we can see a tremendous contrast, which however did not exclude mutual appreciation: the very socially critical Ivens versus the apolitical Huf. As far as I known, Paul Huf never used or had to use the well-meant letter of recommendation that Joris Ivens had written for him. Huf consciously organised his career on his own.
Nationally and internationally acclaimed works
The artistry of Paul Huf covers a period of more than fifty years. The people who appeared before him and his camera to create portraits, fashion photos and corporate photographs and films were people of name and fame. They are always portrayed in a beautiful manner: the nudes and carefully dressed models, the royal and princely couples, the presidents and movie stars. Occasionally there’s a picture of an ordinary person in the street. But even those people have been treated without the utmost respect, as if they belong on a pedestal or in a picture frame. In every one of Paul Huf’s photographs you experience the careful and thoughtful search for beauty. He has chronicled a fifty-year period of prosperity and optimism. With this mix, he has written history in a personal poetic way. He is still absolutely right, because: “Craftsmanship is Mastery ‘. This set out a path for new generations of photographers who elevate their craft to art. To name but a few of the current generation from the Netherlands, who also attract much attention internationally: Erwin Olaf, Anton Corbijn, Jan Banning, Koos Breukel.
I intently leaf through the substantial book of photographs that lies before me. A nostalgic feeling comes over me: fifty years of shared world history with celebrities from the media. Right to the corners of the pages Huf’s photographs have been reproduced in unusual definition, both in black and white and in colour. I read the words of Paul Huf, as he characterized himself: “Because I love people and cameras, I came into contact with the world that is shown in this book. With women and fashion, with landscapes and nature, there is love involved. With men, groups and still lives there is the sumptuous sense of the Golden Age, mixed with a large dose of Bauhaus.”
When I leaf back to the title page, I read: ‘Paul Huf. Highlights. Flashback’. Underneath, in elegant letters, he had written a personal dedication for my wife. Dated 14 – 3 – 1999. I can vividly remember the opening of his exhibition at the Jan van der Togt Museum, fifteen years ago. A charming elderly gentleman accompanied by his wife Bonny, to whom he dedicated the book of photographs. Enjoying the interest and mingling comfortably with the people who were there. After seeing the photographs in the book again, I sincerely regret I did not take the opportunity then to have my wife portrayed by him. With Paul Huf you just know it would have resulted in a beautiful portrait. The reality that he orchestrated, would simply demand that of him.
*Ruud Lapré is an emeritus professor, author on visual arts, collector and friend of the Jan van der Togt Museum