Gjon Mili’s Incredible Images of Famous Artists

The experimental photographer's methods created unexpected images

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Rebecca Fulleylove

Gene Krupa Jam Session (1941) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Gjon Mili was an Albanian-American photographer who was celebrated for his portrayal of movement in photography. He developed photographic lighting tools and techniques with Professor Harold Eugene Edgerton, creating stroboscopic techniques to capture light and motion.

Scroll on to see portraits of 9 artists taken in the 1940s and 50s, which capture some of the most influential painters, sculptors, and photographers of the last century.

Artists: Picasso (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

1. Pablo Picasso

On assignment with Life in the South of France in 1949, Mili was given only 15 minutes with the artist Pablo Picasso

The photographer had shown his experiments with light and movement and the pair decided to try out something similar, with Picasso drawing in the air with a small electric bulb in a dark room.

Artists: Picasso (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Mili captured light drawings of bulls, centaurs and human figures using a long exposure and two cameras – one for the side view and one front on. Picasso was so fascinated by the results, he agreed to five more sessions with Mili.

They've become some of Mili's most famous images.

Henri Matisse (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

2. Henri Matisse

This is the only known image of Henri Matisse creating a light painting. Like Picasso, Matisse was also introduced to the light drawing art form by Gjon Mili and we see him here in bed, surrounded by paper drawings as he creates a design with light.

Matisse, Henri (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Mili took dozens of portraits of the artist for Life, capturing the artist at work in his studio and in more formal portrait shots. It’s in this second image that Mili conveys the scale at which Matisse often worked, as the artist uses an extended brush to make marks on the giant hanging canvas.

Young Artists (1950) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

3. Hedda Sterne

Romanian-American artist Hedda Sterne was an active member of the New York School, an informal group of poets, painters, dancers and musicians active in the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Sterne’s work drew inspiration from Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Sterne was also married to fellow artist Saul Steinberg who was a cartoonist.

Mili’s photographs of the artist feel more formal than his portraits of others. We see Sterne next to a canvas, hands clasped and dressed dramatically in all black. This picture was taken not long before the artist and 17 other Abstract-Expressionists signed a notorious open letter to the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950 accusing it of hostility to “advanced art.”

B.Delaney by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

4. Beauford Delaney

Mili took artist Beauford Delaney’s portrait on several occasions during the 1950s. In these images, the photographer captures the modernist painter at work in his studio with half-finished paintings in the background.

B.Delaney by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Delaney is best known for his work with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930 and 40s, a time which was considered the “rebirth of African-American arts”. His later works in Abstract Expressionism were also celebrated after his move to Paris in the 1950s.

Moore, Henry (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

5. Henry Moore

Henry Moore was known for his semi-abstract bronze sculptures, that often depicted human forms with little detail. Though well-known now, after the war Moore decided to become more present and actively promote his work. As a result the artist began attending more events, appeared in documentaries and also invited photographers to take his picture.

In 1949, Mili was one of them. Continuing his light experiments, Mili worked with Moore to create a series of light drawings. In his studio based in Hertfordshire, England the artist drew illuminated versions of his sculptures like Family Group, though you can’t see Moore in the actual images due to the contrast. Mili did take other portraits of Moore, usually when he was working on a small scale piece and the shots of his studio convey the different scales Moore worked at.

Artists (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

6. Marie Laurencin

In these images Mili photographs French painter Marie Laurencin working at an easel in her studio in Paris. Laurencin was a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde as a Cubist painter, and was one of few females associated with the movement.

Artists (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

The environment captured feels a lot more formal and traditional compared to other studios Mili captured, which were often big open spaces filled with light. Instead Laurencin’s paintings are sat next to shelves jam-packed with books, with a small desk and chair.

Artists (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

7. Jean Arp

German-French sculptor Jean Arp has been a key figure in several movements. In 1916 he was a founding member of the Dada movement in Zurich, his early work was also associated with Surrealism and after moving to Paris in 1926, Arp founded Abstraction-Création, a group of abstract artists that formed to counteract the influence of surrealism.

Artists (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

In the first image by Mili, we see Arp polishing one of his many abstract sculptures in his garden near Paris. In the second a more playful tone has been adopted as Arp sits in the garden framed by a window from his studio, with his sculptures on display in the foreground.

By Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

8. Saul Steinberg

Cartoonist and Illustrator Saul Steinberg was known for his work for The New Yorker, often describing himself as a “writer who draws”. Steinberg’s style had a playful, childlike-doodle quality to it but balanced an elegant deftness that allowed the artist to portray a wide range of subjects.

By Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

In these images we can see Steinberg at work in Mili’s own studio on murals for the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. The sculptor Costantino Nivola is also seated nearby. Mili’s cat is also caught on camera as he sits beside Steinberg in the second shot.

By Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

9. Edward Weston

Edward Weston was a 20th-century American photographer and has been called “one of the most innovative and influential photographers”. During his 40-year career Weston photographed a range of subjects and settings.

In this image from 1946, Mili has created a stroboscopic portrait of Weston, demonstrating another technique the photographer had developed. We see Weston seemingly travel across the image, staggered like in a zoetrope. The technique is achieved with multiple exposures in one image and in this case Weston moved slightly after each one to create that sense of movement that previously wasn’t achievable.

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