For Emma Blau, photography is more than a job, or even an art form.
It’s her link with the past, as the third generation of her family running the extraordinary photographic agency Camera Press, which boasts an archive of some of the most iconic shots of celebrities and public figures through the ages. Unusually, when most smaller agencies have been taken over by the big names, it is still independent and still very much family run. Emma is its Creative Director; her sister and two cousins are also directors.
Emma’s grandfather, Tom Blau, was a Jewish Hungarian photographer who was born and lived in Berlin. He came to the UK in 1935 and set up the agency in 1947, the same year that he became a British citizen.
He was clearly an engaging figure, making friends with the great photographers that he signed up, including Yousuf Karsh, who photographed the Queen; the Jewish photographer Sterling Henry Nahum, known as Baron who photographed her wedding; fashion photographer Cecil Beaton and Princess Margaret’s husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, all of them part of the archive.
Blau’s skill in establishing trust is exemplified in an intimate picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that will take pride of place in the exhibition.
“John and Yoko were still in bed when he arrived at their estate in Ascot and the house was in chaos,” says his grand-daughter. “But when they came down, he got them to sit either end of a long piano stool and inch towards each other, gazing into each other’s eyes and remembering how they felt as they were falling in love with each other.
“He took the shot in the electric second before they kissed.”
Emma’s father Jon, also a photographer with the agency, took over the business after his father, and Emma remembers with pleasure as a child going to work occasionally with Jon at the original offices in a former bomb shelter in Russell Square — “I can still smell the chemicals in the darkroom and that very particular scent of packets of old pictures.”
Her own ambitions originally lay in acting, and she did a BA degree in media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.
In her final year she specialised in photography: “I’d had an Instamatic as a teenager, but this was the first time I had picked up a camera and thought about how I wanted to use it to communicate with the world.”
She worked as a photographer’s assistant then went back to Goldsmiths to do an MA, but everything changed in 2002 when her father died unexpectedly. At 26, Emma found herself a shareholder and director of the agency, along with her sister and cousins.
Over the years, she has taken pictures for publications including Vogue and the Sunday Times Magazine. Her exhibition projects have included Face Forward: a public art project, for which she photographed 400 fellow residents of Lisson Grove and exhibited 140 of the portraits on building site hoardings to mark the regeneration of the area.
Among the celebrities she has shot is New York media star, Tina Brown, a portrait that was later acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.
Now she has curated an exhibition to mark Camera Press’ 70thanniversary, which includes her own favourite picture of Basement Jaxx, as well as her father’s portraits of Louis Armstrong and Sid James.
From Tom Blau’s star-studded archive there are images of talents as diverse as Karl Lagerfeld and Daphne du Maurier, Cliff Richard and Peter Sellers, plus his friend Yousuf Karsh’s portraits of Winston Churchill and Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe will also be on show, exuberantly captured in 1954 by Baron. Camera Press represents Bafta, which is also celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year, and its collection of portraits of leading actors is also part of the exhibition
Emma Blau is proud of Camera Press’s role in photographic history and wants to thank the agency’s photographers.
“Their exceptional images, both past and present, which are showcased in this exhibition have played a significant part in shaping the history of photography.”
Camera Press at 70 is on show at the Art Bermondsey Project Space until June 10