The experimental photographer's methods created unexpected images
Gjon Mili was an Albanian-American photographer who was celebrated for his portrayal of movement in photography. Mili studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and it was here that he developed photographic lighting tools and techniques with Professor Harold Eugene Edgerton and changed the possibilities for photographing movement by developing methods such as stroboscopic and stop-action photography.
Through this pioneering work and Mili’s own photography, he caught the attention of Life magazine. He soon began working as a freelance photographer for the magazine from 1939 up until his death in 1984. Mili produced thousands of images capturing dance, sports and theater events, as well as portraits of musicians, athletes, dancers, actors and artists.
Delving into the archives of Google Arts and Culture, it’s these photographs of artists in their studios and in their homes that caught our eye. Within these images Mili demonstrates his ability to capture candid moments and offer an insight into these artists’ creative process. Here we share various portraits of 10 artists taken from the 1940s and 50s, which capture some of the most influential painters, sculptors and photographers of the last century.
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 experimentations 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.
Mili captured light drawings of bulls, centaurs and human figures were captured 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 and the series has become some of the photographer’s most well-known images.
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.
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.
3. Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was an American sculptor best known for his colorful and abstract sculptures and mobiles. Many of his works moved and were powered by motors or air currents, which embraced kinetics and chance in their aesthetic.
In these two images we see two different sides to the artist. The first we see the artist's more playful side as he wears a paper mask at a party in his Roxbury, Connecticut home in 1959, in which other artists and musicians attended. The second was taken 9 years later and sees Calder at work, bending wire into shapes to form an abstract face. In both images Mili demonstrates his ability to capture candid moments that go on to create portraits full of warmth and intrigue.
4. 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.”
5. 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.
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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
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.
8. 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.
In this 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.
9. 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.
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.
10. 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.