Fernand Fonssagrives Photography: The Sensual Touch

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, The Eye, 1954, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives: An Eye For Beauty

Today we offer a glimpse into the world of a forgotten master of 20th century photography. Being able to re-discover the once lost images of Fernand Fonssagrives feels as exhilarating as finding a Monet for $20 at a yard sale (not that this has ever happened to us). Not a single monograph on his work is available on Amazon. And there has not even been a single solo exhibition on his work in the US or France during the last 50 years. So while all these newly minted chihuahua-donning Russian and Chinese collectors are throwing their millions at Art Basel Miami Beach, you can outrun them and snap up these amazing photographs for a relative bargain at smaller auctions houses and galleries.

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Nu Sable, 1949, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Sand Fence, 1930s, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives was born to a sculptor father and a musician mother in Paris. Fernand Fonssagrives, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn were once considered to be the holy trinity of New York photographers. For Fernand Fonssagrives, the period between 1936 and 1945 was the most productive and memorable, for that perfect moment in time, the stars aligned for Fernand Fonssagrives and he became the highest paid photographer. His images were prominently featured in Vogue, Hapers and Town & Country. His erotic grainy black and white photographs featured the natural beauty of the free-flowing female form. Without being too revealing, Fernand Fonssagrives's artistic images were all done in good taste, leaving plenty for the imagination.

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, La Plage de Cabasson, 1936, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Mexican Extravaganza, 1949, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Le Truite, 1935, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives was at one time the leading photographer of the 1930s and 1940s but completely vanished from the radar during the late 1950s. He was once married to one of the world's most beautiful models, Lisa (Bernstone) Fonssagrives. How this remarkable photographer ceased to exist remains a great mystery.

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, One Side Light, 1948

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Light and Shadow, 1956

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Perspective Pointille, 1954-58

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Suzette, 1954-58

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Negresco Balcony, 1934, Lisa Fonssagrives

Fernand Fonssagrives Photography, Suzette, 1954-1958

Eileen Ford, model agency executive and co-founder of Ford Models, famously said of Fernand Fonssagrives: "I wish for Xmas I could give one of Fernand's prints to every photographer who works with our models. If they lived with these pictures, they could learn how it should be done". But while collectors, museum curators and galleries gobbled up the works by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, the work by Fernand Fonssagrives was completely forgotten. Did some ingenious mastermind collector wipe out the collective memory of the planet in an attempt to buy up all his work? Perhaps, but there may be a more logical explanation...

Fernand Fonssagrives had met his wife, Lisa Bernstone, while attending dance school in Paris during the early 1930s. The two of them were a match made in heaven. After Fernand Fonssagrives broke his back in an accident, it was Lisa who gave him his first camera, a classic Rolleiflex. The two of them embraced a bohemian lifestyle that any true artist dreams about. They lived of their savings and spend long care-free summers lingering on the French Riviera, frequenting the beaches of St. Tropez and Cabasson. When the money dried up, they moved to New York where Lisa Fonssagrives found work as a model. But Fernand Fonssagrives was never too happy about their new urban life style. He detested the city and longed for the natural beauty of the beaches and their free flowing dunes which reminded him of his favorite subject, the beauty of the female form. His marriage to Lisa started to show serious strains by the late 1940s. After Irving Penn laid his eyes on Lisa Fonssagrives, an unhealthy love triangle started to develop between Fernand Fonssagrives, Lisa Fonssagrives and Irving Penn. It probably worked for a while, the three of them spend some time together at the Fonssagrives house in Long Island. But eventually, their love triangle soured in a 'Talented Mr. Ripley' kind of way. The once inseparable couple split and in 1950 Lisa Fonssagrives married Irving Penn. Under the guidance of Irving Penn, Lisa Fonssagrives pushed forward and became one of the most celebrated models of her day. During the 1950s, Lisa was relentlessly photographed by both Irving Penn and Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann (little known fact, Horst even copied the work of Fernand Fonssagrives - Horst's Round The Clock from 1987 is a remarkable play on Fernand Fonssagrives's Hanes Plisse from 1958). After Fernand Fonssagrives lost Lisa, he was never the same again. Lisa had always been his wife and muse. In 1953, Fernand Fonssagrives packed his bags and left for Europe.  He rediscovered his creative streak in sculpture which allowed him to find peace and calm. He returned to New York in the mid 1950s and experimented with a series of photographic studies where shadows and light effects play on the surface of skin.

What happened to Fernand in the late 1950s is still unclear. What we do know is that Fernand Fonssagrives lived the greater part of his later years as a recluse in Little Rock, Arkansas where he passed away at the age of 93. His passing merited only a small unremarkable obituary in The New York Times. In 2003, London Based Michael Hoppen Gallery held the first solo-exhibition dedicated to the work of Fernand Fonssagrives. No major exhibition has been held ever since. And in the time being, the minions of the contemporary art world continue to descent on Miami's Art Basel with their suitcases full of cash. To all the Larry Gagosians of the art world, this is your chance for romance.

Life truly is a theater...

Text © Lucia Fontana for Modern Design Interior
Image Credits © Fernand Fonssagrives

Thank you Fernand! 

If you like the work of Fernand Fonssagrives, be sure to check our other tributes: we previously featured Jeanloup Sieff, Lucien Clergue and Ruth Bernhard in our Masters of Photography series.