Q&A: Henri Dauman on a life in pictures

Photographer Henri Dauman speaks with The Alexander Report about capturing images of some of the 20th century’s greatest icons, now in a retrospective exhibition at Atlanta’s Breman Museum

Andrew Alexander
September 18, 2019

Featured images: (left) Henri Dauman with Multiple Cameras and (right) Henri Dauman with Prints (All images ©Henri Dauman daumanpictures.com KP Projects Gallery All Rights Reserved)

Even if you’ve never heard the name Henri Dauman, chances are you’ve seen his pictures. As a photographer for Life and Look magazines in the 1950s and 60s, Dauman captured some of the most indelible images of 20th-century greats including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Brigitte Bardot, Federico Fellini, Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and countless others.

In 2014, Dauman’s work was organized into a retrospective exhibition in Paris called Looking Up, and a version of the show recently arrived at Atlanta’s Breman Museum.

Dauman is also the subject of a new documentary Henri Dauman: Looking Up, in which the photojournalist discusses his formative years growing up in France during the Holocaust and World War II, an experience he never discussed with his own family in America. Dauman was only nine when his father was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, and his mother died when he was just 14. The documentary, which tells Dauman’s moving story, screened at Atlanta’s Jewish Film Festival this year and will have a nationwide release in early 2020.

The Alexander Report spoke with Dauman from his New York City apartment to discuss the new exhibition, the documentary, and his life in pictures.

Your images weren’t taken with a museum in mind, but that’s where we see them. Could you share some of your thoughts the first time you saw your photos in a museum? 

Henri Dauman: I thought my pictures had died with the likes of Life magazine because that’s what they were done for. I was kind of surprised when they were hanging in Paris for the first time in 2014. A lot of people came out of the exhibition crying. They were reliving their past. I guess it touched them because they’d lived those events I’d covered. I was unaware that the sequence of events was really tracking all the changes that were taking place in the US and the world.

Elvis Presley’s 25th Birthday,Graceland, TN, 1960

I think people who see the photographs are also reacting to that sense of closeness and intimacy with beloved subjects. Did you often get to know your famous subjects, people like Elvis and Marilyn, or was it more an intuitive sort of knowing?

Dauman: It’s interesting you mention that. In the case of Elvis, I spent time with him, and I got to know him, and he got to know me. We met over several days. The first time I was with him on the Brooklyn Pier when he was sailing for Germany. He had just been drafted. Then I picked him up again in 1960 when he was discharged from the army. At that time I was hired by his label RCA Records. I followed him on the train from New Jersey to Memphis and Graceland, so we spent a few days together. One thing we had in common, we lost our mothers. I did younger than he did. He was very moved by the loss of his mother, and he was never the same again … In the case of Marilyn I had the opportunity of taking Marilyn five different times between 1957 and 1959. I don’t feel I got to know her well. When I photographed Marilyn Monroe, I was a fly on the wall, trying to capture reality and meaningful slices of her life.

Henri Dauman on set with Brigitte Bardot Spoleto, Italy, 1962.

In the documentary, you mention that you loved escaping to the movies as a kid. What were the movies that you loved and did they have an influence on your visual style?

Dauman: I was very influenced in the late 40s and early 50s with American film noir because of the dramatic lighting and the shadows. It greatly influenced me and my work. I was so impressed with the lighting and the storylines of these film noir, which only the United States were able to produce, apparently. They were unique. There’s no question that they influenced my work. 

Jane Fonda at Home, New York, 1963.

How would you say that celebrity, and images of celebrities, have changed since the time when you were working for Life?

Dauman: You don’t have as many striking personalities as you had in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when you had actors like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, with different personalities. They moved Hollywood studios with their personalities. Films were written specifically for that personality. You don’t have artists that have been groomed to be presences in film or theater. The studio system no longer exists that way. They’re not as famous as they were in those days, with the imprint of a special personality. And we no longer have a stage in which to perform: the picture magazines, all of them are dead. There are other stages, but not those in which we were able to tell stories.

Jaqueline Kennedy campaigning on Broadway, NYC, 1960.

Was there anybody on your wish list that you wanted to photograph that you never got the chance to?

Dauman: Oh, absolutely. Of course. You cannot do everybody you want to do. It’s just happenstance. Of course, I missed some very important ones. I didn’t do one picture of the Beatles, for example. In those days I was busy doing other things. Somebody else did it. I did a lot of Civil Rights photographs, but I wish I could have done more. But when I put it all together in the show, I realize it was enough to trace the changes of the 20th century.

Henri Dauman in the new documentary Henri Dauman: Looking Up.

In the new documentary Looking Up, you come out from behind the lens to sit in front of it, to tell your story of surviving the Holocaust and the war. 

Dauman: It was something very new to me. I understood a little better how actors feel. It was very painful to retell the story. I am of the opinion not to look back, but to look forward constantly and move on. I spoke very little about those events with my own children, my own family. Why? It wasn’t necessary to burden their shoulders with this. Let them be free to succeed in our democracy without the burden of all these facts in their head, which are useless at this point. But my granddaughter convinced me to do the film. When my generation passes on, nobody will be there to tell people what took place. I’m able to pass on the horror of the war. In a way my decision was right because it’s confirmed by recent events, the renewed cycle of hate that is going on right now. 

Everyone who goes to see the show at the Breman will likely walk away having picked a favorite Henri Dauman image. But do you have a favorite Henri Dauman image?

Dauman: It’s always the last one that I took. They’re all my babies. Photography is a medium where no words are spoken and yet everything is said. During that whole time, I always said, “If the eyes listen, the eyes speak.” And that’s what I did. My eyes spoke and showed what I learned about the people I was assigned to cover .., What can I say? It was a real thrill. A colleague at Life once told me, “Henri, if you take ten great photographs in your lifetime, you’ve done pretty well.” Now that I’m doing museum shows, I’m counting. I think I’m pretty close.

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.

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