Paris Between the Wars – “H” is for Florence Henri

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Between 1919 and 1939, Paris experienced a cultural and intellectual boom. This blog will feature artists, writers, composers, musicians, and designers. Paris was at its cultural peak.

Florence Henri
Florence Henri

Born in New York in 1893 to a French father and a Polish mother, Florence’s mother died when the little girl was 2, and her father died when she was only 15. She went to live with acquaintances, first in Rome, then in Berlin, and in 1924, at age 31, she moved to Paris. Trained as a painter, by 1928 she had abandoned painting in favor of becoming a free-lance photographer. Many of her photographs incorporate mirrors.

Up to the start of World War II, Henri established herself as a skilled photographer with her own photographic studio in Paris. When the city was occupied by the Nazis, her photographic work declined. The photographic materials needed were difficult to obtain, and Henri’s photographic style was forbidden under the Nazi occupation. She turned back to painting. With only a few later exceptions, the peak of her unique photographic experiments and professional photographic work was in the period from 1927 to 1930.


“What I want above all,” Henri said near the end of her long life, “is to compose the photograph as I do with painting. Volumes, lines, shadows and light have to obey my will and say what I want them to say. This happens under the strict control of composition, since I do not pretend to explain the world nor to explain my thoughts.”

László Moholy-Nagy, a contemporary, said: “With Florence Henri’s photos, photographic practice enters a new phase – the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today. Above and beyond the precise and exact documentary composition of these highly-defined photos, research into the effects of light is tackled not only through abstract photograms, but also in photos of real-life subjects.”

Spirits in the Night

My college pal and roommate Judy lives in Vermont. Always has. She and her husband raised their three children in the small, picturesque town of Saint Johnsbury in what is known as the Northeast Kingdom. This town of about 7,600 people symbolizes small-town New England, with a Main Street, a village green, and stately old homes.

A few years ago, the family joined most of the rest of Saint Johnsbury to witness the lighting of the giant evergreen on the village green. Children’s eyes widened at the multi-colored lights covering the tree. Adults smiled with memories of Christmases past, and everyone was in good cheer. But it was cold outside (after all, this is Vermont). Judy’s husband was ready to leave, to walk back to the warm house on the hill. They turned to go, but Judy stopped, turned, and snapped a few more pictures of the tree with her camera. She tucked the camera back inside its case and they hurried home for hot chocolate.

Later, Judy uploaded the photos to her computer and couldn’t believe what she saw. This is one of the photographs. The others look the same. Nothing has been retouched, and there was nothing wrong with the camera. In fact, all the other photos she took that night came out “normal.”

photo by J. Quiet
photo by J. Quiet

No one was smoking nearby, and there was no fog, or steam, or smoke of any kind.

Maybe just a few old friends stopping by to see the tree lighting. What do you think?