A remarkable career forged from the most desperate of circumstances; Elsbeth Juda played a huge role in shaping Britain’s fashion photography today. Choosing to opt for the unusual, she rejected the standard picture perfection which was popular at the time, instead highlighting the grit behind the glamour, with magnificent results.
After fleeing the Nazis as a Jewish woman in 20th century Germany, Elsbeth Juda came to England to begin what would become a truly trailblazing career.
However, it was not all plain sailing to begin with as she struggled to find a job, due to her status as a Jewish émigré and a married woman.
So she decided to go by the name Jay, reinventing herself as a ‘darkroom boy’ in Soho’s Dean Street where she learnt to love the craft of photography.
It was by mere accident that she ended up a professional photographer, as with the lateness of the usual photographer for a shoot, Elsbeth stepped in and the shoot was so successful that she got the job full time.
Her most famous works have been forged during her time spent photographing British model Barbara Goalen, who is recognised as Britain’s first supermodel, working with brands such as Dior and Balenciaga.
Juda’s flexibility and spontaneity on shoot is what came to define her originality. Never happy to settle for the obvious photo, it was her ability to be creative which set her apart from the rest.
Seen below, in a shoot with Goalen on the roof of Whitworth & Mitchell’s in Manchester in 1952, she made use of some fabrics to bring the picture to life, and make for a very happy salesman in the bottom right.
Speaking of this shoot, Juda said, “For a cotton issue [of the magazine] I took Barbara Goalen to the Calico Printers’ Association. Instead of having 18 fabrics just laid out, I said, ‘Let’s try something.’”
She helped to emphasise the awe surrounding the industry and the models.
It was also her use of unusual, often incongruous backdrops for her shoots which created such a uniqueness in her pictures.
Her use of the things in the surrounding environment was also very unusual at the time, her wrapping Goalen in the fabric while dangling off a beam neatly juxtaposes the glamour of the fashion world with the grit that stitches the seams.
Below she captures the British artist Peter Blake, the man behind the famous sleeve design for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and model Marie-Lise Gres at his studio in London, 1961.
Juda enjoyed a stellar career, being highly successful on a commercial scale, working for some of the biggest magazines and agencies, such as Harper’s Bazaar, and even starting her own trade magazine, International Textiles, with her husband, who was the editor. In 1946 they reinvented the magazine, calling it The Ambassador: The British Exports Magazine.
Below we see the dimly lit, buzzing Corps de ballet dressing room at Sadler’s Wells in London, 1949.
It was Juda’s time spent with Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy (wife of artist László Moholy-Nagy), that allowed her to carve her vision of the photos she wanted to take, inheriting aspects of Moholy’s eye-catching modernist aesthetic.
Glamour and grit are two almost contrasting terms, but in Juda’s case they work perfectly. The grit holding up the glamour, elevating it with it’s difference provides her photos with slightly more realism; and almost a relatability.
She tempts you with Shelagh Wilson lying seductively across the Coca-Cola sign, then depicts the same Wilson gawping dimly at a parrot, while the seductees look significantly less entranced. Because, why not?
“If you can find pleasure and fun you become inventive”
As a combined team of her and her husband, they sent shockwaves through the industry with the editorials they published.
‘the most daring and enterprising trade journal ever conceived … No other magazine … has so consistently and brilliantly demonstrated the relevance of works of art to the problems of industrial design’
Art critic Robert Melville, writing about The Ambassador.
The success of their magazine sent them into social circles, mixing with some very established artists of the time.
Artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper were invited to design covers, textiles, and provide illustrations, and soon Juda and her husband found themselves at the centre of the cultural milieu during the 1940s and 50s. Norman Parkinson was a friend, and Benjamin Britten often came round for tea.
It was Elsbeth Juda’s friendship with Graham Sutherland that put her in the room for the portrait painting of Mr. Winston Churchill in 1954.
She captured the sitting, putting her own take on the moment, which was fortunate indeed as the painting was later destroyed, leaving Juda’s depictions as the only remaining accounts of the event.
Elsebeth Juda’s impact upon Britain’s textile industry in the post-war years was huge, but until now, she has gone unrecognised in wider circles, and certainly underappreciated.
Her work for The Ambassador provided a platform upon which Britain could once again have a voice on an international scale in the world of textiles and fashion.
Her modernist edge and eye was recognised in an exhibition, Grit and Glamour, put on in The Jewish Museum last year, providing Juda with at least the public recognition her years of work warrants.