Emil Otto Hoppé

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Emil Otto Hoppé (1878 – 1972) was hugely celebrated in his lifetime. Indeed, he has been described as the most famous photographer in the world in the 1920s by Bill Jay, and declared to be ‘the Master’ by Cecil Beaton. Despite this, much of Hoppé’s work has only recently been rediscovered.

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Early Life

Emil Otto Hoppé was born into a wealthy family from Munich on 14th April 1878. He was the only son of a prominent banker and received his education at some of the finest schools in Munich, Paris and Vienna. Having finished school, he apprenticed in various German banks for ten years, before accepting a position at the Shanghai Banking Corporation. The first leg of his journey to China took him to London in 1900, where he met with an old school friend. Shortly after, Hoppé married the sister of his old school friend, Marion Bliersbach, and determined to remain in London.

Photographic Career

On arrival in London, Hoppé began experimenting with photography. He was admitted as a member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1903, and in 1907 left the banking world behind completely to set up his own photographic studio in Baron’s Court. In 1913, he took on the lease of 7 Cromwell Place, the previous home of Sir John Everett Millais.

Hoppé’s popularity grew rapidly, and he quickly gained a reputation as a leading figure of pictorial portraiture in Europe. Among the many celebrated literary and art world figures Hoppé photographed were George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Jacob Epstein. In the early 1920s he was invited to photograph Queen Mary, King George VI and other members of the royal family. Frequently working with narrow depth of field against a neutral background, Hoppé pared down his portraits in order to emphasise his sitters’ individuality.

In 1919, Hoppé began to travel the world in search of new subjects to photograph. He journeyed to Eastern Europe, Africa, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and India. The resulting photographs were published in a number of books, including The Book Fair Women, which included international sitters from differing backgrounds and cultures. The book introduced groundbreaking ideas about beauty; shattering the outdated view held in Britain that true beauty was a Western beauty.

Hoppé was also a prolific street, landscape and travel photographer. In the 1930s Hoppé increasingly went out on the streets to look for interesting people and situations to photograph. The results were often published in photo-series featured in magazines such as Weekly Illustrated . In order to photograph unobtrusively, Hoppé would wrap the quietest camera available to him, a fixed-focus Brownie, in a paper bag with a slit for the lens. This enabled him to photograph daily London life with remarkable spontaneity.

The Hoppé Archive

Hoppé was obscured from photographic history when, aged 76, he decided to sell five decades worth of work to a London picture library, the Mansell Collection. Filed anonymously by subject, Hoppé’s work lost all notion of authorship. His work remained in the collection for over thirty years after Hoppé’s death, and was not fully accessible to the public until the collection closed down. In 1994 his work was retrieved from the picture library, and reunited with the Hoppe family archive of photographs and biographical documents. After many years of cataloguing, conservation and research, E. O. Hoppé’s huge body of work is now gaining the recognition it deserves.