The Genesis of Goddess Portraits : Meet Madame Yevonde

Be original or die.

Yevonde Middleton

The timeless concept of the “Goddess” endures as a symbol of flawless embodiment and noble beauty. Evolving with the times, the term “Goddess” has been adapted to modern jargon like “KOL” and “internet celebrity”. In the realm of social media, tutorials on effortlessly capturing “Goddess Portraits” have become ubiquitous: guiding girls in striking authentically alluring poses and angles, and offering boys universal photography techniques. While we won’t delve into the debate on the validity of this trend today, have you ever wondered about the original progenitor of the “Goddess Portrait”?

Meet Yevonde Middleto, sometimes described as an eccentric artist, but revered within her profession as Madame Yevonde. In the 1930s, when the norm for portrait photography was monochromatic black and white, Yevonde displayed an ardent passion for the world of colour photography. Embracing the innovative Vivex colour imaging and processing technology pioneered by Willesden Color Photography Limited, she emerged as a pioneer of 1930s British colour photography.

Arguably, it takes a woman’s perspective to truly grasp the most captivating facets of femininity. Throughout her extensive six-decade career, her lens predominantly focused on luminaries. As a devoted feminist, she was particularly drawn to capturing the essence of women, and her renowned “Goddess” series stands as a testament to this commitment. Yevonde ingeniously transformed prominent women of her era, such as Duchess Margaret Campbell and model Lady Bridget Poulett, into ethereal manifestations of ancient Greek and Roman mythological figures. The resulting photographs exude an air of mystery, with their gaze pensively transcending the confines of the frame. The seamless fusion of intricate fashion design and the art of portrait photography produces a truly theatrical impact. The “Goddess” series sparked substantial societal discourse, cementing Yevonde’s reputation as a prominent figure.

If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour, none of your wishy-washy hand-tinted effects.

Yevonde Middleton

In the early 20th century, the landscape of colour photography was intricate and often elusive. Among Yevonde’s contemporaries, the concept of colour photography was largely confined to advertising and not held in high regard as a legitimate artistic pursuit. As a trailblazer, she ventured into uncharted territory, facing scepticism and dissenting opinions from her peers. In her memoir, Yevonde recalled the prevailing sentiment within the photography community of that era, a fascination with the interplay of light and shadow, where colour photography was deemed unnecessary and out of place among the stark contrast of blacks and luminous whites. Nonetheless, Yevonde embodied an unwavering spirit of experimentation, famously stating, “Colour photography didn’t really have a history, so you had to reach inside your imagination and just go for it.”

Undeterred by criticism, Yevonde welcomed diverse viewpoints, recognizing the value of mutual critique and feedback in the creative process: “We must witness each other’s work and critique it, while also embracing constructive criticism, for without it, progress is unlikely.” Her resolute feminist perspective emerged at an early stage. Joining the suffragette movement at the age of 17, she was profoundly influenced by an advertisement in The Suffragette Newspaper. Acknowledging that photography could offer women financial independence, she made a bold decision to embark on a photography apprenticeship as a conduit for contributing to women’s emancipation through a distinct avenue.

Her memoir, In Camera (1940), reveals her driving motivation, “I embraced photography with a clear purpose – to secure my own independence by earning my own income.” Yevonde’s upbringing in a privileged environment afforded her quality education. By the age of 21, with her father’s support, she established her own photography studio on Victoria Street, marking the beginning of her professional journey. However, her experiences as a land girl during World War I underscored the interconnectedness of economic and female empowerment.

Thus, Yevonde passionately championed photography and sought to elevate female participation within the field. Her enduring dedication to cultivating a community of women photographers underscores her unwavering commitment to empowerment and societal transformation.

In today’s world, it might be challenging for us to fully fathom the significance of persisting with color photography (especially when black-and-white imagery has become a prevailing trend and style). Yet, if not for Yevonde, the 1930s goddess portraits might have remained confined to grayscale, devoid of color. It was Yevonde who breathed life into them with vibrant hues.
Following an extensive three-year renovation, which marks the most extensive overhaul in its 127-year history, the National Portrait Gallery in the UK is poised to unveil the exhibition “Yevonde: Life and Colour”, running from June 22nd to October 15th. The exhibition introduces the remarkable journey of Yevonde Middleton, a woman who found her liberation through the medium of photography. Her explorations in experimental color photography charted a new trajectory for portrait artistry, offering a captivating insight into her vibrant and dynamic six-decade-long career.

If I had to choose between marriage and a career I would choose a career, but I would never give up being a woman.

Yevonde Middleton

*Vivex is a subtractive trichrome process invented by chemist Douglas Spencer, involving three negative plates exposed sequentially with color filters (cyan, magenta, and yellow). They are processed individually and then printed together at the Vivex headquarters in Willesden, capturing the complete spectrum of hues.

Photo source: National Portrait Gallery、The Conversation、The Guardian

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