Rediscovering Yva

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The name Elsa Neuländer-Simon (1900–1942), or Yva, her photographic pseudonym, is more often than not a footnote in the career of her famed apprentice, Helmut Newton. With little information and archival material to fall back on regarding Yva’s life and career, the majority of her work has sadly remained unavailable for public viewing. Despite this, it is evident from the photographs that survive from her oeuvre that Yva possessed an inimitable style and fresh artistic vision which clearly earned her respect and acclaim in an industry mostly dominated by men. At a time when the image of women being perpetuated in the media was one of subservience and sexual objectification, Yva positioned her females as strong and independent, and above all, modern. The Neue Frau, or New Woman, was a subject of heated public debate in Weimar Germany and throughout Europe, and a concept which Yva helped shape through her sensual and decadent photographs. Her images captured the zeitgeist of the era, and the essence of female rebellion and autonomy.

Raised by middle class German Jewish parents, Yva enjoyed the privileges of a liberal education and the freedom to choose her own career. In 1925 she opened a studio in Berlin with ten employees and was soon producing experimental, nude and fashion photographs for mainstream magazines and periodicals, such as Gebrauchsgraphik (a German advertising design journal established in 1923), Die Dame, Elegante Welt, and the Ullstein publication, Der Uhu. Her photo-stories, or fotoserien, which she began contributing to Der Uhu in 1930, were directed towards the young female reader and focused on popular themes of the time such as the exploits, trials, and tribulations of young women leaving behind their lives in the provinces for the cosmopolitan excitement of Berlin. With these photo-stories Yva exhibited a technical sophistication that placed her work in a genre somewhere between photography and film.

Landmark exhibitions, such as the 1929 Film and Foto in Stuttgart and the 1930 Das Lichtbild in Munich, were soon featuring her work. Parallels have often been drawn between Yva’s experimental craft and that of contemporaneous male photographers, namely Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, both of whom worked with the photogram (a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a photo-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light) or “rayogram” as Man Ray dubbed them. Yva’s photograms were featured in magazine articles on modern photography, and have been described as an “attempt to transcend the temporal and spatial limitations of traditional photography and to characterise a personality or phenomenon from a variety of vantage points and in different moments of time”.

During the peak of her career, from 1926 to 1933, Yva worked on numerous projects for product advertising, expressing a clear preference for women’s beauty and fashion items such as cosmetics, shoes, jewellery and accessories. Despite the commercialisation of her work, Yva never compromised her unique experimental vision and distinct concept of female modernity. In her fashion work Yva rarely photographed her models looking directly at the camera. Whether her face is covered with a black lace veil or her glance is directed away from the lens, the female’s gaze almost never meets the viewer’s. The effect of this detachment and alienation enabled Yva to endow her images of women with a cool artifice or invisible mask that lent them a sense of control over the gaze of the male spectator.

Around 1936, Yva received an offer from Life magazine to go to New York, but her husband Alfred, who wasn’t prepared to leave Berlin, dissuaded his wife. “When a photographer has a unique view of the world and its people,” Newton wrote in his autobiography, “his or her work is highly paid and much sought after all over the world. Yva had that unique view, and that’s why the offer came from America.” In a tragic irony Yva’s husband’s reluctance to leave Berlin had sealed her fate. When Newton’s apprenticeship was abruptly terminated in 1938 as a result of Yva being forced by the Nazis to close her studio, she was forbidden to continue work as a photographer. By the end of the 1930s Yva was earning her living as an X-ray technician in the Jewish hospital in Berlin. While Helmut Newton and his parents fled the country, Yva chose to remain, later perishing in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“I have always done my utmost to keep her memory alive,” Newton said. “She was a great photographer and an exciting woman.” Thirty-four boxes of photographs, equipment and personal items stored in a warehouse at Hamburg harbour indicate that Yva had plans to emigrate, plans never realised due to her eventual deportation. Confiscated by the Nazis, the majority of these boxes containing her entire photographic archive of negatives never resurfaced, having been destroyed by a bombing raid in 1943. Although seven boxes survived, it wasn’t until the mid 1990s, when the material came up for auction, that the legacy of Yva was revealed. Today Yva’s surviving vintage photographs can be found scattered throughout various personal and museum collections in Germany and America.

When Helmut Newton and his wife returned to Berlin in 1958, Yva’s studio still stood, her fashion prints hanging from the walls, their lifeless images bearing silent witness to the Weimar Germany of his youth. In 1967 the building in which Yva’s studio was housed became the Hotel Bogota. A collection of Yva’s fashion photographs can be seen displayed throughout the fourth floor where she and Helmut once worked.

by Lauren Weinberg

Taken from the Glass archive – issue two – Rapture

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