Behind the lens: Raquel Welch, Elizabeth Taylor and Pavarotti as you've never seen them before
Eva Sereny came to photography late. It was the 1960s and she was in her mid-30s, living in Rome. When her husband, a construction engineer, had a car accident (he would make a full recovery), she thought about how close she and their two young sons had come to losing him, and resolved that she needed a career. Photography won out because she considered herself ‘slightly artistic’ but couldn’t draw.
Despite this delayed start, Sereny amassed a rich archive. She spent the 1970s and ’80s taking stills on film sets (everything from The Assassination of Trotsky to three Indiana Jones productions), one of very few women doing such work, and photographing cultural icons (Simone de Beauvoir, Luciano Pavarotti, Raquel Welch) for magazines.
While compiling a new book of her images and recollections, Through Her Lens, Sereny – now retired – says she often found herself saying, ‘Good God, I did that.’
It was finding out Mike Nichols’ 1970 film Catch-22 was shooting in Rome that led her to film-set photography. She managed to get on that set, for a few half-days at first. But when Nichols saw the resulting images, she was asked to spend two weeks with the production.
Her pictures are often unexpected. Invited to photograph a Superman-era Christopher Reeve, Sereny came away with a tender, thoughtful portrait of him at a piano, as well as the requisite gym shots.
‘I had to feel it was right – it was not a technical thing,’ she explains of her approach. ‘It’s how you get on with people.’ No bother for a woman who was able to win round Marlon Brando after he told her, on the set of Last Tango in Paris, ‘I really don’t like photographers.’
When she went to shoot Pavarotti at his home in Modena, she enlisted a friend of her son’s to act as her assistant. After the first day, they realised that something didn’t tally.
He had, at some point, handed her a camera without film. Sereny knew it must have happened when she was photographing Pavarotti with a puppy perched on top of his head.
‘I suddenly realised I was clicking an awful lot… The sound wasn’t quite right… but you’re so into what you’re doing.’ The next day she part-confessed to Pavarotti – there had been a ‘technical hitch’ – and pleaded with him to pose with the puppy again.
When he relented, a magazine cover was born.
Through Her Lens: The Stories Behind the Photography of Eva Sereny (ACC Art Books, £40) is published on 29 August 2018. An exhibition of Sereny’s work is at Anemoi Gallery, London W1, from 13 September 2018