Jorge Lewinski: Portrait photographer who captured a generation of British artists on film

Jorge Lewinski's career was filled with opportune moments – quirks of fate which diverted his life in new directions and opened up fresh possibilities. Indeed, his portfolio of 20th-century artists' portraits came about fortuitously – he had intended to record writers but had doubts about how visually interesting they might be – when his fellow Pole Feliks Topolski suggested the idea of painters. It was the start of a decades-long obsession that resulted in a photographic documentation of a whole generation of British artists.

It was 1962 and the British art world was on the brink of the "Swinging Sixties" explosion in music and fashion. Artists became celebrities too, popular with the newly founded colour magazine supplements. Topolski, a well-known painter in post-war Britain, was an early subject for Lewinski. John Piper followed and then Francis Bacon. Lewinski recalled:

I simply phoned Bacon up and said "can I come and show you my pictures?" And I went, first without cameras, for a chat, drinking sherry . . . unfortunately he was totally drunk when I arrived. He was most apologetic, but after that, he was always on time and very polite. I developed a good relationship with him – but was never a friend, he was not that sort of person . . .

He photographed Bacon on several occasions, including a 1967 portrait that depicts that artist in an unusual multi-exposure, hand made in the pre-digital dark room, producing an image that reflects Bacon's painting style. Lewinski often pictured his subject alongside their work to capture what he described as the "spirit" of the artist. Barbara Hepworth (1968) is framed through the huge oval of one of her bronzes.

Direct access to artists became more difficult as galleries began to control every aspect of their client's career. This resulted in some significant holes in the growing archive. Ben Nicolson is absent ("he was rude to me on the phone many times"); Lucian Freud would not be photographed; and occasionally Lewinski's natural empathy with an artist's work cut no ice: "Eduardo Paolozzi was not a very pleasant person, although I photographed him a number of times."

Lewinski admitted that his project became a "bit of a mania". He methodically planned his "hit list" of artists and the Sunday supplements provided a high-profile market-place for the pictures. His genial manner resulted in a number of long-term friendships, particulary with the St Ives painters Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost.

He became regarded as almost an "official" photographer of artists and got exclusive access to private views and studios. Most galleries appreciated the publicity value and supported his endeavour. The scope expanded to include visiting American notables, and his trips to France encompassed the École de Paris painters Pierre Soulages, Jean Dubuffet and Serge Poliakoff. One of Lewinski's great regrets was that his late start ("unlike Arnold Newman who began in 1941") meant there was no opportunity to photograph Picasso, Braque or Mondrian.

He was born Jerzy Lewinski (later taking the name Jorge) in Lwów, Poland, in 1921. On the eve of the Second World War, Lewinski attempted to leave Warsaw, only to be arrested along with his stepfather by the Russians at the border and sent to a Siberian labour camp. When Russia entered the war against Germany, Lewinski was released to join the Allied army in North Africa. In another turn of fate, his contact on the way with the British Army enabled him to enrol in the RAF and he arrived in Liverpool in 1942, beginning a long love affair with Britain.

Lewinski was reticent about his prison experiences, but these early deprivations forged a stalwart and focused character, with a steely personality disguised by an engaging and laid-back demeanour. He was always quick to invite new acquaintances to call him "Yuri", the name his family and friends used. After the war, Lewinski took a degree in economics at London University and spent the next 14 years in business. During this time he joined a club and took up photography on an amateur basis. He had found his métier.

By 1968, expanding magazine and newspaper work – and the growing success of his artists' folios – encouraged Lewinski to make photography his profession. Coincidentally the London College of Printing was launching a degree course in photography and Lewinski was appointed senior lecturer in charge. But when "media studies" began to impinge on the LCP curriculum, Lewinski took early retirement to launch his own photography school in a large house on Wandsworth Common. It was to last for 14 years, attracting students from all over the world.

Lewinski was proud to be an old-school photographer. He never owned a digital camera and claimed that one of the reasons he eventually abandoned photography was the advent of the digital age. He developed all his films and printed each image himself, claiming to be one of the great dark-room technicians of his generation ("unlike Cartier-Bresson, who never developed a film, never printed a print – but a great photographer").

In 1995, Jorge Lewinski suddenly stopped taking pictures. At 74 he had experienced some health problems, but confessed privately to a disillusion with the new generation of contemporary artists. He also explained: "I made photographs for a reason. I would make a contract to do a book and then go do it. I stopped because there was no reason to continue – I am not an amateur, doing a bit of this and that – and I have no regrets." The family sold the house in Wandsworth and bought a historic home in France. Lewinski's French wife, the photographer Mayotte Magnus, would spend much of her time restoring their French palace – partly Renaissance, partly 18th-century, and open to the public. It includes a large gallery for exhibitions of paintings and photography. Jorge and Mayotte collaborated on several photographic projects.

Lewinsky also worked on numerous books. English Heritage (1987) with Mayotte Magnus and Lord Montague, and Venice Preserved (1986) with Magnus and text by Peter Lauritzen, were two personal favourites. He was also particularly proud of his 1978 volume Camera at War: a history of war photography and a book with Frank Delaney, James Joyce's Odyssey (1981). Perhaps his most successful collaboration was with Margaret Drabble; their book A Writer's Britain: landscape in literature (1977) is still earning royalties 30 years later.

Over the years Lewinski's collection became an historical archive of growing importance, as the painters and sculptors he had so conscientiously recorded attained international fame. The Tate Gallery showed an interest in acquiring it, although it was eventually sold to Chatsworth House in 2002. Lewinski much enjoyed relating what happened:

The Tate said they wanted to buy the whole lot, but one thing I really wanted – just for once – was an exhibition of all the Sixties and Seventies artists together. Not a selected exhibition, not just the famous faces. [Sir Nicholas] Serota simply wouldn't do it. One of my ex-students, William Burlington [son of the Duke of Devonshire], then asked to see the collection of prints and wanted to buy this himself, letting the Tate take the negatives and contact sheets. Then he said he would like to purchase the whole thing.

I told the Tate about this development but they still would not give me the show I wanted. William said he would arrange an exhibition as part of his deal, so I agreed Chatsworth could have them. The Tate then offered three big rooms and a grand party – but I had given my word.

At the end of his life Lewinski was happy dividing his time between a flat in west London and his house in France, his dual passions being watching sport on TV and stamp collecting. He lived to see his work applauded by the art world and the archive secured for posterity at Chatsworth – a fact that gave him immense satisfaction.

Mike von Joel

Jerzy Lewinski (Jorge Lewinski), photographer: born Lwów, Poland 25 March 1921; Senior Lecturer in Photography, London College of Printing 1968-82; twice married (two sons, one stepdaughter); died London 31 January 2008.

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