Against the cracks of an earthen wall, Kate Capshaw, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford are crashed out side-by-side on rattan seating, their limbs a tangle of mid-wash 80s denim and safari shirting. They are taking a break on the set of Spielberg’s 1984 adventure juggernaut Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Fittingly, a towel dangles overhead, as though ready to mop action-moistened brows. It’s a moment of quiet familiarity snatched between takes, where the subjects appear more like best friends hanging out in a university dorm than megawatt stars working on a seminal movie.
The woman who captured that image is Eva Sereny, a self-taught Swiss-born photographer who honed her craft on the sets of Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s. Behind the scenes of films like The Great Gatsby (1974), Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) and The Night Porter (1974), Sereny documented the inner cogs of the film industry at a time when working female photographers were a minority, and later went on to direct the BAFTA-winning short film The Dress (1984) starring Michael Palin. From Audrey Hepburn to Clint Eastwood and Charlotte Rampling, her portfolio is a vivid who’s who of 70s and 80s Hollywood celebrity.
Carrie Kania, Creative Director of photography archive Iconic Images, worked closely with Sereny on her 2018 archival book Through Her Lens, and sees Sereny’s portfolio as being characterised by moments of authenticity. Whether it’s an off-duty Malcolm McDowell enjoying a cigarette on the set of O Lucky Man! or the intimate black and white portraits of Romy Schneider taken during an impromptu studio session in Rome, Sereny’s work speaks of an ability to delve beneath the polished façade of celebrity and find the nuanced human beyond.
“Looking through Eva’s incredible physical archive, we felt that in many ways her work was overlooked in its time,” says Kania. “She manages to capture these seminal visual moments of film but also wonderful, almost tourist-like snapshots of what’s behind the scenes. The shot of Lucas, Ford, Capshaw and Spielberg looking completely exhausted is a great example of that. You have the palpable sense that this is not a fancy Hollywood set – these guys are in the middle of the jungle filming something that would become iconic.”
Working on bustling sets with time-poor actors required a tenacious approach. Many of the stars Sereny worked with – Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Raquel Welch – distrusted photographers, and made no bones about it. “The Brando story is wonderful,” laughs Kania. “He famously hated to talk and said to Eva, “I don’t like photographers, you know?” But Eva took her job seriously and had the confidence and capability to gain the respect of these figureheads.”
That tenacity may partly derive from the difficult circumstances surrounding Sereny’s entry into her medium.
“For me, photography came about by necessity,” Sereny tells me from her home in Australia. Now retired, she lives between London, Rome and Sydney. “My husband was involved in a car accident, crashing into an artificial lake in Rome. Sitting by his bedside not knowing whether he would recuperate, the situation appeared very bleak. I could have been widowed with two small sons and no income. I knew that I had to do something. I had an artistic eye but couldn’t draw – suddenly, photography came to my mind.”
Some of Sereny’s first forays into photography were on the set of Mike Nichols’ blackly comic war film Catch 22. Kania comments that, “Even in these early shots, you can see what Eva’s trying to do in terms of capturing fleeting moments.”
As the young photographer began climbing the ranks of her industry, she found herself increasingly drawn to the art of cinema. “My passion for movie directing stems simply from the great directors of the moment that I found myself working with,” explains Sereny. “My influences are Spielberg, Bertolucci, Zinnemann, Truffaut, Visconti and Fellini, to mention just a few.”
Kania sees those cinematic inspirations as being central to Sereny’s evolving aesthetic. “The more interested she became in the actual process of filmmaking, the more that is reflected in her photos,” says the Creative Director. “She was learning the art of framing from the best cinematographers in the business. That’s a real asset, because working on set you’ve got to be able to deliver an image that the papers will print.”
Later in her career Sereny moved into portrait work, capturing the likes of Meryl Streep and scooping commissions from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The Sunday Time Magazine. It was then that Sereny’s people skills really came into their own. “You’re correct that there is a human connection, through my lens, to my subject,” the photographer tells me, with a degree of downplay. “I’ve been told that I get to the soul of the person I’m shooting.”
Those words couldn’t be truer of the time Sereny captured Paul Newman barefoot outside his Connecticut home clutching two beers, dressed in a ‘Get Really Stoned’ t-shirt (“in that image, he’s not Paul Newman but the average dude down the street – one who likes barbeques and sheds,” says Kania) or when she shot Pavarotti at home with his dogs and horse, only to discover that the roll of film was faulty, and had to persuade the great tenor to do a re-shoot.
“Eva had to develop a relationship with the subject quickly – the Romy Schneider sessions are extraordinary in that sense,” says Kania. “But she also worked with a great Hollywood actress of the 40s and 50s, Jennifer Jones. When Eva shot her, Jones was a woman in her seventies and it took her a while to warm up. It was only when Eva took her outside to her favourite space by the beach that she got a twinkle in her eye. That tells you a lot about Eva’s process.”
Sereny has stated that she “didn’t think about being a female photographer” and disregards the idea that she navigated a male-centric world, making a point of telling me that “when working on set, I wasn’t the only woman around. There were plenty of women from the makeup artists to the hair stylists, costumists, script ladies, and line producers.”
Women photographers, however, were in woefully short supply, and Sereny’s portfolio carries an undeniable legacy for the female lens jockeys who have followed in her footsteps.
More than that, Sereny’s archive serves as a great history of cinema in its own right, spanning arthouse European productions to big-budget franchises and everything in between. “She truly is a unique figure in photography,” says Kania. “One whose artistic voice deserves to be prominent.”