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Carl Fischer in London

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Published date 26 April 2016

Carl Fischer graduated from The Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, and then came to London in the early 1950s to study at Central Saint Martins as a Fulbright Fellow. After graduating, Carl went on to produce some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century for Esquire Magazine, as well as other New York based advertising agencies.  He has won numerous awards, including the Mark Twain Journalism Award, the Cleo Award and the Augustus St. Gaudens Medal, and his work features in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Corcoran Gallery of Art and The Victoria and Albert Museum among others.

We recently had the pleasure of meeting Carl in his New York studio, where he recounted his memories of studying in post-war London…

Carl Fischer

Carl Fischer

I took the opportunity of a Fulbright Fellowship to study in London at Central Saint Martins College of Arts. I chose England – a five day journey by ship with Marilyn (my partner) and our massive steamer trunk – because there was a language requirement for a Fulbright grant, and I could be understood in English since childhood.

It was the winter of 1951, six years after the end of the war, and London was still devastated by the bombing. Almost every block had a huge crater protected by a low brick wall, and shrapnel-pocked buildings were shored up with massive wooden buttresses. It was a grim victory. The air had the pleasant odour of burning charcoal and, though the winter wasn’t as cold as home, it was damp and dismal. (The BBC Home Service, with exquisite precision, once forecast the weather as “occasional rain, followed by intermittent showers.”)  Food was scarce and rationed. We were able to buy one duck egg a week, sometimes a sliver of meat, and restaurants served beans or spaghetti on toast. A thoughtful aunt sent us a dozen eggs from the Netherlands and, lacking a refrigerator, we had an egg orgy. Yet that victorious but ravaged country generously provided we visitors with free healthcare including both medical and dental service. Astonishing.

Carl and Marilyn's Christmas card in London

Carl and Marilyn’s Christmas card in London

We rented rooms in Swiss Cottage, near Hampstead Heath, heated by a gas burner that, with the insertion of a shilling, warmed us for a short while, one side at a time. Our Christmas card that year was a picture of the two of us, bundled against the chill, sipping hot tea, socks hanging forlornly over the gas fireplace. We wore raincoats every day, drank great quantities of tea and slept with hot water bottles.

The Underground, which used paper tickets, took me down to school at Southampton Row, Holborn, right by the British Museum, that magnificent façade blackened by years of soot.  Everywhere were signs indicating where Charles Dickens or the Duke of Wellington or someone notable once lived. England was a curious blend of sadness and renewal, and we gorged on London’s inexpensive – and stirring – theatre. In the morning, Marilyn wound rent an accommodating stool for tuppence that would silently stand in a queue, in place of us, until evening, for the purchase of cheap seats. We saw the venerable Ralph Richardson, the promising new playwright Peter Ustinov, and discovered a budding young Welsh actor with a sonorous voice, Richard Burton. And it was the opening of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which, sixty years later, is still running.

I had planned to study book design, and did for a while, and Marilyn took a course in costume design. Then, by chance, I came across an unused photography darkroom in the basement of the School, and Mr Johnstone, the amenable Scottish principle, allowed me to drop my courses and study photography on my own, as they had no instructor. I had bought a Rolleicord camera before leaving home and, with instruction books from the local library, learned to develop and print black and white film. When the school was closed on weekends, Marilyn created a darkroom of blankets covering me. ‘Self-taught means making all the mistakes it is possible to make, but remembering them vividly. Mark Twain maintained, “If you hold the cat by the tail, you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”

Some of Carl Fischer's most famous images

Some of Carl Fischer’s most famous images

The Rolleicord produced twelve two-and-a-quarter-inch-square negatives, and after developing my first roll I prepared to make twelve small contact prints. All twelve negatives, as chance would have it, were the same size as a sheet of eight-by-ten-inch paper, so I assembled the negatives and cleverly made one contact sheet of the whole roll, a much more manageable way to file pictures. I did that for the rest of the year. Back home, wouldn’t you know, professional photographers had been making contact sheets that way, but better; they cut the negatives into three convenient strips instead of the clumsy twelve little pieces. Just as (on a more noteworthy level) unbeknownst to each other, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz had each simultaneously discovered calculus. And Darwin and Wallace, evolution by natural selection.

Dr Unger, a German refugee who had translated a Peter Ustinov play for publication in Germany, asked me to do a portrait of him with Ustinov for his book, and that became my first, unpaid, assignment. At the time, Ustinov was at the top of his fame in London, acting in the elegant, antique Wyndham’s Theatre on Charing Cross Road and gave me only a few minutes in his crowded dressing room. The light was poor and I clumsily set up a couple of photofloods while Ustinov smoked impatiently. I got off only one roll of film. The pictures were poor, and although Dr Unger was satisfied, it was clear this could be a stressful line of work. Marilyn said I sweated profusely. Years later, at a shooting at my studio in New York, Ustinov didn’t remember our important first encounter. Imagine that.

At Christmas, that bleak London winter, Marilyn came across a notice on the school bulletin board inviting foreign students to visit an English family for the holidays. Hope and Kenneth Lee, Quakers, invited young people from a dozen countries to stay at their large sprawling house in Ashford, Kent. We spent the holidays playing parlour games, washing dishes and arguing politics. We ate goose and sang carols outside neighbours’ houses in a most Dickensian Christmas. Kenneth worked in an office, but his real vocation was lobbying for disarmament, human rights, and world peace – a daunting agenda for this soft-spoken, slight and gentle man. He and Hope had been missionaries in China when the war broke out and spent five arduous years in a Japanese internment camp. Rumpled and unassuming, with frayed sleeves, he was the quintessence of a trustful man battling a ruthless world. He and Hope were pacifists, and we argued about that, also.

One wants to believe in pacifism, it is such a civilized idea, but conflict seems to be our nature. Darwin identified our fight for survival in a hostile world. Our economic system, our legal systems – even our games – are adversarial. And women’s suffrage didn’t pacify things as some thought it would. There’s a lot of evolution still to come.

Carl Fischer images

In the years that followed, Kenneth would stay with us in New York on his frequent trips to repair the United Nations, where he was involved in negotiations for the rights of the Kurdish people before we had heard of the Kurdish people. He seemed to know everyone. He was the chairman of innumerable conferences on arms control and refugees and human rights and destitute children. Self-deprecating as ever, he once wrote me that his resume “strained the bounds of modesty.” We saw him often in London and watched him age over the years. Hope, her hair and disposition still fiery red, was eventually felled by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair. On one of our visits, we went to lunch and she fell asleep in the restaurant. Opening her eyes, and seeing the Americans, she said, “We don’t want your nukes,” and then dozed off again.

After her death, Kenneth moved to a small cottage and took up driving about the countryside in a red sports car. When he died, his memorial service at the Society of Friends meeting house at Kings Cross in London, people sat in a circle and, when moved to do so, stood and said a few words of remembrance – an effective catharsis, not unlike the talking cure. No ministers. No ceremony. Our younger son is named Kenneth Lee Fischer.

When our London school year ended, we drove around Europe on a not-so-grand tour before returning home. We first went to Heidleberg to buy a Leica but saw a poorly-made Russian camera called a Contax Spiegel (mirror) – a single lens reflex, and amazing new invention, and I bought that instead. We arrived in Paris debilitated by a sweltering August heat wave and stayed for a month. We rented a room in Montparnasse and for the first time in our lives we discovered food. Growing up, all I cared for was dessert. Across the airshaft, each morning, a woman would place a single peach or pear to ripen on her fire escape. We had our dinner in a tiny, inexpensive restaurant downstairs, where every evening, the same portly working man sat with a napkin tucked under his ample chin and was served one course at a time. A plate of radishes and butter.  A single vegetable. He approached each dish with reverence and respect. His dinner was a long and serious enterprise and he polished off quantities of bread and an unlabelled bottle of wine, as we learned to do. We began to eat with discovery and delight at what had once been an unexceptional daily function.

Fashion Models (small), Carl Fischer

We returned home with this new reverence for food and over the year discovered ever more pleasurable flavours. Condemned people on death row, may order anything they wish for their last meal. On the chance that the governor does not commute my sentence, I have planned my last dinner in advance: Beluga caviar with Dom Perignon to start, Dover sole with Meursault, brie with a Bosc pear and Margaux, and chocolate mousse with Chateau d’Yquem. Or maybe, and ice-cream soda. Getting all this together will take a bit of time and could delay the execution, but it will be worth the wait.