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“I think we must all agree,” British photographer Yvonde declared to the Professional Photographers’ Association in London in 1921, “without women photography would be a miserable business.”

With a focus on female representation,”Yevonde: Life and Color,” a vibrant display of his idiosyncratic oeuvre at the city’s newly opened National Portrait Gallery, argues for his role as a pioneer of color photography.

Born Yvonde Cumbers in South London in 1893, she was known professionally as Madame Yvonde, rarely by her married name (Mrs Edgar Middleton). On his own terms, he used the single Yvonne, with which he signed his prints, exhibition invitations and the 1940 autobiography “Camera”.

After a succession of private schools in the home county and a convent school in Belgium, Yvonne was sent to a finishing school in Paris. Although her teachers there rejected a sentimental essay she wrote on Mary Wollstonecraft, Yvonde returned to England in 1909, at the height of the women’s suffrage movement, a convinced feminist. After a long march, sidewalk chalking and selling papers for the Women’s Social and Political Union, Yevonde glimpsed possible career freedom in the example of two successful women photographers, one of whom hired her as an apprentice.

In 1914, aged just 21, Yvonne opened a studio with the help of his father, Frederick Cumbers, a co-founder of an ink manufacturer. (A love of color was probably his legacy.) The young photographer quickly produced portraits of dignitaries, including members of the royal family, in the burgeoning illustrated magazines of the time — the so-called “midweeklies” — including Sketch and Tatler.

Yevond’s career continued unabated until his death in 1975. The subject of his film is the Who’s Who of Britain – if you can keep track of titles and titles constantly shifted by scandal, divorce and remarriage. Hung chronologically, the portraits of suffragettes, socialites, athletes, sovereigns and celebrities quickly transitioned from tentative investigations in black-and-white to the theatrical studies in saturated hues that became Yevond’s hallmark.

When Vivex – the first color process available to professional photographers in Britain – arrived in 1931, a spokesman described it as “the bad boy of the photographic family”. In the field of fine art photography (usually male), color was looked down upon as a distracting stunt. For Yevond, who immediately began using the method to create rich natural colors, it was an unknown world of experimentation: “Red hair, uniforms, fine complexions and colored fingernails came into their own,” he later reflected in his memoirs. “Hurrah! We’re in for exciting times!” he wrote. “No history, no tradition, no old masters, but only a future!”

This new field of visual possibilities was also, he said, particularly suited to female practitioners, given their familiarity with makeup, fashion and interior design. “Let’s do a riot of color,” he demanded, as if domestic traditions could forge brave new frontiers. “None of the colored effects of your willfully-washed hands.”

The following year, Yevond held the first British exhibition of color portraits.

Her photographs from the 1930s dazzle with red: film star Vivien Leigh appears in two-thirds profile against a bright red background that accentuates her rosy lips; Sports car driver and aviator Jill Scott pops head-to-toe cherry red against a pale background; “London Chemist’s SOS” screams a tabloid headline behind two newsagents with red lips and tousled hair.

A darker palette and vision emerged in Yevond’s most famous series “Goddesses and Others” from 1935. These 26 photographs — some seen here for the first time in new archival prints made by the National Portrait Gallery, which recently acquired Yevond’s 2,000 color separation plates — are a fantastic study of women aged 15 to 40 dressed as mythical characters. Already known for his extensive use of props, painted and fabric backgrounds, dramatic lighting, and color filters, Yevonde here brings new, dreamlike finishes to artifice and performative mise-en-scene.

Margaret Sweeney, arguably the most photographed woman of her time (later known as the “Dirty Duchess” of Argyll), appears as Helen of Troy, her porcelain complexion and dark Marcel bob covered in a dark blue veil. Lady Dorothy Campbell Niobe weeps for her slain sons, her stout-framed face glistening with glycerine tears — a nod to Man Ray’s surrealist “Larmes” a few years earlier. Sheila Milbanke, one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” (later a Russian princess), is the ill-fated Amazonian queen Penthesilea: scantily clad in leopard skin, head thrown back, her brightly lit throat pierced by Achilles’ arrow.

Although critics of the time, and later, derided the “goddesses” as haughty and unusual—they were “degenerate”—one wrote—but because of the portraits’ vivid compositions and risky interpretations of female identity, they were associated with Yvond’s admired male contemporary, Cecil Beaton. and Angus McBean.

Color printing ceased during World War II and Yevonde returned to the more conventional black-and-white portraiture. His later playful photomontages and solarized portraits (with a young Judi Dench) are not his strongest works. But they make sure that Yevond’s photography studio is a place of artistic experimentation and financial freedom—a home of its own.

Yevonde: Life and Color
Through October 15 at the National Portrait Gallery in London; npg.org.uk.

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