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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Review: Through Her Lens - the stories behind the photography of Eva Sereny 

The book’s contents page reads like a Who’s Who of the 1970s – Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael Caine, Dustin Hoffman, Liza Minnelli, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave and Raquel Welch

British-American actress, businesswoman, and humanitarian Elizabeth Taylor on the set of the 1972 film 'The Assassination of Trotsky' in Italy visiting former husband Richard Burton. Eva Sereny / Iconic Images 
British-American actress, businesswoman, and humanitarian Elizabeth Taylor on the set of the 1972 film 'The Assassination of Trotsky' in Italy visiting former husband Richard Burton. Eva Sereny / Iconic Images 

Eva Sereny’s celebrated career as a photographer began in the late 1960s, when she sold a series of shots she’d taken of young children participating in sport in the then newly developed Italian sports centres. Preparing For The 1980 Olympics? ran the headline of the piece in The Times on May 1, 1968.

In what reads like a scene from a film, in this striking book’s introduction, James Clarke writes that after receiving good feedback on the images from friends, Sereny had flown to London (she was living in Italy, where she took the photos) and boldly walked into The Times’ offices without an appointment.

She was sent directly to the picture editor, who liked what he saw. Sereny had only recently taught herself photography after her husband was involved in a car accident. He escaped with minor injuries, but the experience made Sereny realise she needed work to fall back on should she find herself a widow responsible for their two small children. That she went on to photograph quite so many famous subjects surely surprised her as much as anyone.

Not long after her first sporting photographs appeared in print, Sereny approached film publicist Gordon Arnell, who at the time was working on the film adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 which was being directed by Mike Nichols and shooting in Rome in 1969.

Sereny’s luck was still in: a few days later she found herself on the set as Special Photographer. The rest, as they say, is history.

Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Sereny was the official Special Photographer on a line-up of films that included Visconti’s Death in Venice (1972); Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), and 1900 (1976); Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby (1974); Fellini’s Casanova (1976); and Steven Spielberg’s series of Indiana Jones films.

Italian director Federico Fellini with actor Donald Sutherland on set of the film 'Casanova' in 1976. Eva Sereny / Iconic Images NOTE: TO BE USED ONLY FOR THE BOOK REVIEW
Italian director Federico Fellini with actor Donald Sutherland on set of the film 'Casanova' in 1976. Eva Sereny / Iconic Images

Sereny’s shots from these sets included in the book are a mixture of posed stills, such as the images of Silvana Mangano wearing Piero Tosi’s stunning period costumes from Death in Venice, or the father/son publicity shot of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); action shots taken while the film was shooting.

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There were candid, behind-the-scenes snaps: Donald Sutherland in the make-up chair being transformed into Casanova, his infant son, Roeg, in his lap; Sutherland and Gerard Depardieu joking together on the set of 1900; Kate Capshaw, Spielberg, George Lucas and Ford relaxing in-between takes for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

The book’s contents page reads like a Who’s Who of the 1970s. Film stars dominate – Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael Caine, Dustin Hoffman, Nastassja Kinski, Liza Minnelli, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave and Raquel Welch, to name a few. Sereny struck up lasting friendships with Bisset and Rampling, which accounts for the personal introductions they have each provided for Through Her Lens.

There are some wonderful shots of Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky (1972). Taylor wasn’t in the film, but her husband Richard Burton was.

Sereny recalls being all but “ignored” by the actress, Taylor was so “intent” on watching Burton, but this didn’t stop the photographer capturing some great images, especially of Taylor. She captured the actress with a rare smile on her face, her hair loosely pinned up behind her in a half-ponytail, looking like a girl of 20, not a woman twice that age, gently holding a white rabbit.

Sereny was also the special photographer on Audrey Hepburn’s final film, Spielberg’s Always (1989).

Many of Sereny’s images of the stars of stage and screen made it into magazines. She became a regular photographer for The Sunday Times Magazine, as well as contributing to the likes of Life, Elle, Paris Match and Harper’s Bazaar among others. Her subjects included Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Bianca Jagger and Anais Nin.

The author Henry Miller – who was also a painter – asked Sereny if she wanted to photograph him surrounded by his pictures. She didn’t realise they were on display in his bathroom, above the toilet.

She photographed Luciano Pavarotti at his home in Modena for the Observer Magazine in 1980. In one image, he sings an aria to his favourite horse; while in another, he balances a puppy on his hat. Initially a spur-of-the-moment capture, it was only later that she realised her assistant had forgotten to put film in her camera, so she had to embarrassingly ask the tenor to re-stage the shoot the following day. At first he refused, but eventually Sereny won him over. Thank goodness, she says, since it was used as the magazine’s cover shot.

Not all of Sereny’s accounts of the shoots included in the book are quite as revealing. There’s a tidbit of gossip here and there – Al Pacino’s slightly sarcastic “That’s what you do, isn’t it?” when Sereny politely asks if she can take some photos of him on the set of Bobby Deerfield (1977), or watching Connery fooling around, putting “everybody in a good mood” while filming Five Days One Summer (1982) in the snow at St Moritz – but there are less actual “stories” than the subtitle promises.

The photos themselves are well worth the attention – they are the unquestionable stars of the show.