WHEN Barbara Ker-Seymer opened her London studio in 1931, she painted the walls black, installed a radiogram and hung paintings by John Banting and Sophie Fedorovitch. Adventurous, innovative and energetic, Ker-Seymer became a sharply radical portraitist of a new English avant-garde.
She rejected all the artifices of studio photography - the retoucher's brush, the soft focus lens - and placed her sitters against backgrounds of leather, shiny metal and rough animal skins, asking them 'not to pose, but to behave as they would if they were just sitting around'. Her photographs were sparse and economical - Nancy Cunard's veiled head against a tigerskin rug, Raymond Mortimer angular against corrugated iron, the androgynous oiled profile of Nancy Morris. She was fascinated by faces, looking intently at their angles and textures. Photographing friends like Frederick Ashton, Edward Burra, Gertrude Stein and Julia Strachey, she made a haunting chronicle of a London Bohemia soon to disintegrate.
Ker-Seymer had just left the Chelsea School of Art when she met the society portrait photographer Olivia Wyndham. When Wyndham moved to the United States, Ker-Seymer took over the studio and painfully taught herself the technicalities of photography. She announced the opening of her own studio (in a 30-shilling room above Aspreys the jewellers) with a stark modernistic card and was soon known as level-headed, charming and with a healthily cynical attitude towards 'society'.
By 1931, she was producing Footprints in the Sand, a photo series for Harper's Bazaar, about aspiring writers - one of her sitters was the young Evelyn Waugh.
She travelled to Toulon to photograph Jean Cocteau and was intrigued and entranced by a new demi-monde of beachlife and bars, opium and sailors. 'Everyone bought a sailor's costume,' she remembered 'including me.' On the pages of her snapshot album, she is a small, sleek and vivacious figure in a matelot's jersey, photographing, drinking, lounging, observing.
When the Second World War began, Ker-Seymer's experiments in photography stopped. Friends dispersed and the avant-garde collapsed. Changes in public attitudes and the shortage of photographic supplies destroyed Ker-Seymer's markets and her always fragile confidence. Though she worked for a time in a film studio, she spent most of the war living in the remote English countryside.
Barbara Ker-Seymer never returned to photography. With a young son to care for, she abandoned her camera and opened one of London's first launderettes. 'It was an immediate success,' she remembered, 'and very amusing because I met so many people - I thoroughly enjoyed being a launderess.' The business grew and prospered and photography was forgotten.
With her negatives abandoned during the war, the only surviving evidence of Ker-Seymer's career in photography is a small collection of battered prints and a snapshot album. Nevertheless, as contemporary historians began to rediscover the British photography of the Twenties and Thirties her work was much in demand. To those who came to visit her in search of information or exhibits, she was courteous, but doubtful that a modern audience would have any interest in her work.
Strolling along the beach at Toulon in the Thirties, Barbara Ker-Seymer stopped to take a photograph of a young man. She pictured him from above, splayed on the sand, angular, elegant, his skin gleaming in the strong southern light. In the Riviera sunshine, Ker-Seymer recorded the passing of a brilliant Bohemia.
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