On almost any cool afternoon, you can find Paul Hansen shuffling up and down Broadway between Diversey and Belmont. Tucked under his arm is his black leather bag, slightly worn and fairly heavy for someone of any age. Around his neck is his prized possession--his Rolleiflex--a large boxy camera that dates back to the days when most people relied on the services of a professional photographer to document events in their lives.
He visits shopkeepers, flirts with women on the sidewalks, chats with parents as they stroll their children.
He'll ask to take their photos, and often they'll agree. It's hard to turn down this gray-haired, impish-looking man. A few will even buy his photos, which he sells for $5 each. None of them will realize what they're getting. They won't know that in his lifetime he has photographed the legends of Hollywood, the dancers and artists of New York, the politicians and power brokers of Chicago.
Or that he was Martha Graham's chief photographer for three years. Or that George Balanchine used him to photograph the original American Ballet Company, which later became the New York City Ballet. Or that he was one of the first in this country to photograph the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Or that he once bit his lip to avoid getting into an argument with Alfred Stieglitz over Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while Georgia O'Keeffe looked on.
As a contributing photographer to Vanity Fair, Vogue, Town & Country, and a host of other fashion, theater, dance, and society publications, including the prototype of Life, Hansen appeared alongside Edward Stechen, Cecil Beaton, Anton Bruehl--legends who not only helped establish photography as an art, but chronicled America's escapist glamour of the 1930s.
A native of Chicago, he returned after World War II, and began documenting the lives of this city's rich and famous.
He is a walking encyclopedia on America's high society during the Great Depression, on its entertainment industry and its love affair with modern dance, on the changes in photography. He has strong opinions about Chicago's second city status, and he still carries a torch for New York.
Today, he lives in a cramped two-room apartment in Lakeview. His living room doubles as his bedroom and the place is packed floor to ceiling with boxes of prints and negatives. His bathroom doubles as his darkroom. Within, he continues to make black-and-white prints that are rich in contrast, whose compositions are still masterful, still artistic.
Paul Hansen is a forgotten figure in the annals of photography. Yet his collection of his work could easily be on display in a museum. He knows that. But he has not provided for its disposition. He has no will, and he has no family. His rent is $385 a month and he receives just under $500 a month in social security benefits and a military pension.
At the age of 86, he walks up and down Broadway still plying his craft, capturing the grins of babies now instead of the wry smile of Fred Astaire, hoping to sell enough prints to survive.
"Everyone has a camera today," Hansen says, grumbling over coffee and cake at one of the neighborhood's new coffee houses. For a frail-looking man, Hansen has a big appetite and a sweet tooth. He's remarkably healthy, doing well despite the oppressive summer heat and the lack of any air-conditioning in his apartment.
"They all think they can do it better than me. I think people have bigger egos today, especially the young people. They'll tell me to go ahead and take the photos, and then they don't want to buy them. They may even recognize that I've done pretty well, but most of them don't want to spend the money. They have no sense of responsibility."
Danny Newman, the PR consultant for the Lyric Opera, repeatedly hires Hansen to photograph the annual Lyric Opera Ball. Newman describes him as "one of the most elegant photographers I've encountered in the past 50 years. He's a photographer of an old and better school. He not only takes good pictures, he develops them well. He's a master in the darkroom.
"He has a wonderful style in dealing with high society. He's really like one of them. The one thing I can say about Paul is that he's not a man who is a self-promoter. He's all artist, really. He's not in the hurly-burly of the hype era."
"The 1930s were significant years in the history of photography," wrote Philip Davis in his encyclopedic Photography, first published in 1971. "Fortune magazine was launched in late 1929 and did well in spite of the great stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression. Life magazine began in 1936, starting a whole new trend in journalism based on the concept of the picture story. . . . It was not long before other publishers got on the bandwagon. Look appeared in 1937, followed closely by a number of others, such as Pic and Click. Pictorial supplements were added to Sunday newspapers, too, and suddenly the nation was picture-conscious . . .
"Gradually over the years," Davis continued, "the photograph, which began as a tantalizing and transient shadow and became a wonderful and treasured artifact, has lost its charm. Its novelty is long gone, its value cheapened by overuse; it has become an item of casual interest to be produced, consumed, and forgotten--or so it seems.
Davis asked: "Is photography an art, a craft, a science, a hobby? Who really cares? It is, without any doubt at all, the most vital and significant visual force in the world today."
Paul Hansen's old photographs still have force. His unpublished photos of Fred Astaire, taken at the height of Astaire's film career, are a good example. They are photos he hopes to sell one day, along with other unpublished pieces--they're a sort of insurance policy against the day when the rent goes too high.
It's been said that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers worked so well toether because, as Katharine Hepburn put it, she gave him sex, he gave her class. Hansen's photos give Astaire more than sex.
Hansen had approached Astaire in 1932 backstage at New York's Shubert Theatre, where he was appearing in Cole Porter's The Gay Divorcee. Hansen brought along some pictures he had taken of other dancers, including Jack Whiting, a rival of Astaire's, and asked Astaire if he could shoot him. Astaire agreed, if Hansen would return another day.
When he returned a week later, the show had closed.
Four years later Hansen went west for a taste of life in Hollywood. He wheedled his way onto an RKO set where a studio photographer was taking publicity stills of Astaire in top hat and tails.
With letters of introduction from his editors in New York, Hansen convinced the studio to give him a session with Astaire. Then he reminded the dancer that they had met once backstage and told Astaire he was now going to hold him to their agreement. It's likely that Astaire did not even remember Hansen, but he told him to go ahead.
Using a small camera he was experimenting with, Hansen captured two full body shots of Astaire almost laughing, leaning slightly to his side on a cane. He's trying to look cool, but he doesn't quite make it. He looks like someone trying to look like Fred Astaire.
One photo captures an Astaire rarely seen--more than just looking sexy, Astaire looks downright scampish, with a wry magnetic smile. There's a touch of elegant danger in his eyes. "I told him I didn't want that smiling stuff anymore," Hansen remembers. "The studio photographers always got him smiling so broadly. I told him to give me something completely different. He tilted his top hat forward a bit, lowered his head, and then let his eyes just glance up at me."
Hansen never found a market for his Astaire photos. "I think it wasn't the image the magazines wanted of him," Hansen says. "They wanted him to be cool, aloof, perfect." But he is so sure of their value he would not let them be published with this article.
Using his letters of introduction, Hansen gained access to David O. Selznick's studio, where he photographed Janet Gaynor and Fredric March on the set of A Star Is Born. He arrived on the set at 8 AM. "I remember it was already hot," Hansen says. "Here was Percy Westmore, of the legendary family of makeup artists, sitting at a table, waiting. Through the door comes Janet Gaynor, very petite with reddish hair, and this face filled with freckles. That was the first time I realized why they needed makeup artists and why they were paid so well. Percy Westmore worked his magic, putting enough makeup on to cover those freckles yet still let Miss Gaynor look natural. It was quite a trick. I remember her hair was in funny little curls. That's how I photographed her, wearing these curls that made her look like a little girl.
"I saw Fredric March just sitting and waiting and he was dressed like a man going to the Ascot races, very fancy with a silk hat. I asked him if he would let me make a few pictures with him that would look like the old-fashioned daguerreotypes. He took his hat off, held it upright in his hand, and struck a very proper pose.
"I photographed so many different stars, anyone who was available. I still have many of those photos."
But Hansen returned to New York. He says, "Motion picture work was all tedious and the procedures were so lengthy. I didn't quite have the patience for that. I didn't think I wanted to be a studio photographer once I found out what all that entailed. It was a lot of waiting around, and I was a man who always wanted to be on the move. And I valued my contacts in New York. I liked the dance world I was part of, the friends I had there, the magazine work. It wasn't as much money as I could have made in Hollywood, but I never thought money was everything."
On his way back east, Hansen stopped in Chicago to see his family and to sell some of his photos of the Hollywood stars. "The Chicago Tribune wanted them, but the price they offered me was so little, I refused. I thought I could sell them for more in New York. In the end, I only sold a few, enough to give me some money to live on while I reestablished myself in New York.
"I always tried for the different shot, the one that others didn't take. But a lot of times I couldn't sell the artistic shots. If I wanted to make a sale, I had to take a pretty straight shot. Then I would take something I liked. Sometimes I think I was being too artistic, too stubborn for my own good."
Hansen was born into a Swedish and Norwegian neighborhood of Chicago around Grand and Noble streets. His father was a tailor, "a man tight with money," Hansen remembers. As a young boy, Paul Edward Hansen would watch the people in the Italian settlements nearby prepare for their religious celebrations. He can remember street festivals in which a large statue of the Virgin Mary was paraded around the block. His father called it a primitive rite.
The only time Hansen was ever taken to church was when a parish in his neighborhood sponsored a lecture on Norway, his father's native land. Martin Hansen brought home a souvenir book of Norwegian postcards.
"Whenever he would bring that out, I would look not at the scenery, but at the people. I would look at their faces, at their wedding outfits. That might have been the beginning of my interest in photography."
Hansen's first love then was art. On Sundays, he would wander the Art Institute, admiring the bronze and marble sculptures, and plaster casts of Greek torsos.
In 1916, The Daughter of the Gods opened in Chicago at the Studebaker Theatre. The plot of this now forgotten film, which featured Annette Kellerman, an Australian dancer and swimming star, had something to do with mythological Greece. Hansen had some interest in that, more in a PR gimmick to promote the film that promised a $5 payoff.
"This one was a contest where you had to make a drawing of Annette Kellerman from a poster in the lobby of the Studebaker. I thought I was pretty good at copying things. I went down there and made a drawing, then I sent a letter to Miss Kellerman telling her how much I enjoyed her movie. I'm not sure whether the drawing was that good, or whether it was my extra persuasion, but she must have liked my work. I got $5 in the mail as my prize and I used it to buy a Brownie box camera."
The first photos he took were of the sculpture in the Art Institute. "That was my way of learning how to use the camera. I had to do time exposures. I played around with the lighting until I got it just right. I came across some of those first photos not long ago when I was looking for something. I was surprised to know I still had them."
Even as a boy, he had a striking ability to charm. He persuaded a teacher at the Art Institute to let him attend her weekend class for nothing; he said he just wanted to see if he was really good enough to consider a career in art. He brought along his new camera and took photos of his classmates, more as a memento than anything else, and returned the next week to give each of them a print. The teacher took him aside and advised him to sell the pictures--even if for a token amount. "It will be worth more to them if they have to pay something for it, instead of getting it for free," she told him.
Thus came Hansen's first sale. "It was the first time I realized I could make money selling pictures."
Hansen dropped out of old Tuley High School after a couple of years, but eventually he enrolled in evening classes at the Art Institute. By day he was an apprentice commercial artist making $10 a week. His specialty became pen-and-ink drawings for men's clothing ads.
By the time he reached 18 he was doing some free-lance photography, besides making $40 a week as a commercial artist. But the idea nagged at him that he wasn't really creating art.
For a couple of years he apprenticed with William Louis Koehne, one of Chicago's premier portrait photographers. Hansen's first job there was to work the gas heater that dried the photos. "I got to see what the darkroom work was like," Hansen says. "I had already done a little darkroom work, things I learned myself from information I picked up in the public library.
"Koehne wanted me to learn retouching; I knew that retouchers always worked in little cubbyholes where they hardly had any fresh air to breathe, and they strained their eyes. I thought, that's not for me."
He did agree to load powder into the flash bag. "I was a nervous sort of a kid and I had heard about flash powder and what had happened to all the news photographers who burned themselves by using too much," says Hansen. "You learn pretty quickly how much is too much. And you cross your fingers a lot."
He moved from Koehne to Donald Cameron Beidler, whom he calls "the best children's photographer I've ever known . . . a fragile man who looked English." Beidler put Hansen to work in the darkroom developing film and making prints. Hansen experimented with light, learning how to soften or sharpen the image, how to create halos, how to eliminate blemishes. Like Percy Westmore, he became a sort of magician.
Around this time, Hansen was introduced to Hazel Sharp, a dancer from California who had a studio in the Kimball Building (now the downtown site of DePaul University). Through Sharp he discovered Chicago's dance community, and he began photographing ballet students, local stars, and productions.
"The professionals in town would order 100 or 200 prints and I had to make them in one night. I never charged enough for the prints, but I was always afraid if I charged too much I would lose the work. I fell in love with the theater. I saw ballet as a means of developing a great deal of confidence, of developing the body so it's strong. Classic ballet is one of the most interesting things to see in a theater. It combines everything--costuming, dance, stage settings, and music."
He never married Hazel Sharp, or anyone else for that matter. "I should have married, probably," he says. "But I was so involved with photography. My main purpose in life was to make pictures that would be the best that I could possibly make. I'm kind of a picture-maniac."
Once, working late in his studio on Clark Street near North Avenue, he looked out the window and saw a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen gathering on the street below. "There they were with their white cone hats and all. I knew there would be trouble somewhere that night. I think I must have decided after that that I really wanted to see something else, to leave Chicago and see what other cities were like. I thought Chicago was really a small-minded city then."
Hansen soon packed his belongings and headed to New York. "I wanted to get out of Chicago to see if I could be the best photographer in the country. People thought I was crazy, but I figured I'd be OK. After all, I could always sell photographs."
It was 1929.
The Thirties in Vogue is a recent anthology of writing, photography, and art from the pages of Vogue magazine. An emblem of that time, actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., said in the forward: "The world of the Twenties ended with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a crash. Its echoes continued into the Thirties, but there was still a fashionable group of lucky lotus-eaters, who sought refuge in an escape-world with three headquarters: Paris, New York, and London.
"New York," he said, "gloried in its handsome, witty, dashingly corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker. Park and Fifth Avenues dressed up nightly for the blinding lights of Broadway, humming the latest songs by Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and Rodgers. They repeated the jokes of Will Rogers and Jimmy Durante, and danced and clapped with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters 'up town' in Harlem. 'Cafe Society' (a New York invention) flourished at the Stork Club, at '21' and El Morocco. Rudy Vallee, Bing, Harry Richman and 'Ukelele Ike' sang for us; Paul Whiteman played 'Rhapsody in Blue' and 'An American in Paris.'
"The great beaux of New York--the 'Will' Stewarts, 'Doc' Holdens, 'Jock' Whitneys and their like, who sent their laundry on a round trip to London by Cunard Liner weekly--invited film and stage stars, debutantes and heiresses, society leaders and lesser ladies out to Long Island weekends in their Duesenbergs and Rolls Royces, driven by liveried chauffeurs. They laughed at Damon Runyon's characters and Dorothy Parker's wit, at Peter Arno's cartoons, and at themselves (in The New Yorker). They swooned over Garbo, mocked or loved Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Temple, marvelled at each new building to scrape skies, and lionized each new celebrity from any profession--admirable or otherwise."
This is the world Paul Hansen stepped into.
His first New York address was a rented room near Carnegie Hall. For the young Chicagoan, this really was a dreamy world, filled with excitement. It was not unusual for him to bump into someone like Edward Steichen strolling along Sixth Avenue, or to walk into a gallery and arrange an appointment to photograph a major artist.
He was able to photograph most anyone he wanted to, and was given assignments by the top fashion and society magazines of the day.
Hansen never wanted to be put on staff, or to work under contract for the magazines that used him. "I wanted to be free to photograph anything I wanted," he says. "When I look back, I should have had a better business sense, but I don't regret the work I did."
Cynthia Cathcart, a librarian at Conde Nast Publications Inc., which still publishes Vogue and Vanity Fair, researched Hansen's photos for this article and was surprised to learn he remains a working photographer. Her first question was whether he was preparing a showing or a book project. She was so enthusiastic, I hated telling her that he is barely surviving. When I described some of the photos he had taken, she knew them immediately.
His published photos, all black and white, include a well-known shot of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno goofing around with bandleader Fred Waring and comedian Jimmy Durante. Waring is holding Durante by the nose, while Arno is lifting tufts of Durante's hair. It is one of the most reproduced shots in the Vanity Fair photo library.
Other photos include a dramatic shot of the Mexican muralist Jose Orozco, taken in front of a mural he was completing at the New School for Social Research, then under construction in New York City. Framed low in the picture, Orozco almost blends into his own images.
The feisty Russian painter Savely Sorine sat for a potrait; Hansen photographed Sorine's hands at work. The team of Ramon and Rosita, briefly the rage in New York, were taken dancing to Ravel's Bolero at the Club El Patio. And there is a stern portrait of the handsome muralist Gardner Hale, taken shortly before he died in a car accident in California.
On assignment to photograph the painter John Marin at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery in New York, Hansen overheard Stieglitz in a blustery conversation with his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. "I was trying to get a couple of shots of them, but then again I thought I was possibly intruding, Hansen says. "My main purpose for being there was to photograph John Marin, yet I knew instinctively that Miss O'Keeffe would not have minded having her photo taken. She was pleasant.
"They didn't look like the best photographic subjects to me," he says. "Stieglitz looked like an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, and Georgia O'Keeffe looked so plain. She was not a very attractive-looking woman, but she had a lot of character. I recognized her as an artist. She was the greater talent of the two, and Stieglitz's greatest achievement was to give her encouragement."
Anyway, Hansen sneaked a couple of shots. But the light in the studio was uneven and he didn't like what he was getting. He thought of asking the couple to pose.
"Stieglitz was standing there talking in a very loud voice, doing an imitation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a parody of one of his fireside chats. I happen to think that Roosevelt was the best president we ever had, especially at that time, and I didn't like Stieglitz doing the parody. I was intimidated at the thought of going to Stieglitz's studio, and now that I was there I let my emotions get in the way. I could have photographed him properly, but I didn't like him. I felt sorry for Georgia O'Keeffe that she had to be around this domineering little man."
Hansen never let anyone see those photographs of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe. "I thought my reputation as a photographer would be ruined if I ever showed pictures of Stieglitz that weren't the very best. He had a temper and was a vengeful man." When the danger passed, the pictures stayed hidden--in Hansen's mind they didn't measure up. "Not long ago, I found those negatives and destroyed them."
There are photos he is proud to show. Among his dance photos are dreamy images of the young Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova, taken in Hansen's studio around 1934. Hansen remembers the Ballet Russe star as "the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Tiny and graceful, her porcelain features appeared regularly in New York's magazines. She was always referred to as the second Anna Pavlova.
There are stark images of Martha Graham and her modern dance troupe, taken in the mid-1930s. In a flowing white gown, Graham looks like a demented, beckoning bride. Lord knows what awaits whoever answers her.
Hansen photographed George Balanchine with his shirt sleeves rolled up, seated backward in a chair. "He always objected to being photographed, saying 'I don't photograph well.' He would screw up his face or say something funny--anything to ruin the photo. But he was good-natured," Hansen remembers.
New York magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair helped create a kind of ballet mania in America. Their pages celebrated the major new dances and the exciting companies that mounted them. Flipping through months of Vogue from the 1930s, I laughed at the tension the magazine tried to build over the arrival of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Photos introduced the company in Paris; dispatches from Europe heralded its departure for America.
I thought of my own mother, born in 1923, struggling to survive in Chicago in the Depression. What did she know about ballet, she who often went without shoes, and ate the pigeons and rabbits her brothers managed to catch! And in New York, Paul Hansen was taking his marvelous pictures.
Some of the magazines then, Vogue and Vanity Fair chief among them, were responding to America's longing to be normal again, to have fewer cares. Glamour helped some people forget their struggles, even for just a little time. I asked Hansen if he ever felt guilty about chronicling the wealthy and successful. His answer was short and pointed: "They didn't want photos of the poor."
As the 1930s ended, after a decade at the top of the world, Hansen returned to Hollywood. "The only reason I can give you is that I hated the winters in New York and I just had enough of them. I had photographed so many people and I wanted to see what else I could do. California seemed like a paradise to me in comparison to New York."
This time he opened a studio to photograph models interested in breaking into the movies. He would shoot them looking beautiful and sell the pictures to advertising agencies, who knew how to put these shots to use on behalf of just about any product you can imagine.
World War II interrupted this career; Hansen was drafted early in the war and of course the Army did not assign him as a photographer. When it was over he reluctantly returned to Chicago. His mother was here; he felt he'd been a negligent son and now he thought he should take care of her. He opened a studio in a run-down mansion on Michigan Avenue at Erie and began photographing young women who wanted to be models.
Sometime in the late 40s, says Hansen, he told a woman he knew at a California modeling agency that he was looking for models of a very specific type: he wanted a high-class, sophisticated look. The woman sent Hansen some stills. Hansen sorted through them. One of the models was a young girl named Norma Jean Baker, and Hansen decided she wouldn't do. Too low-rent. He picked some other models who were ladies you have never heard of. Thus, says Hansen, he missed his one chance to photograph Marilyn Monroe. "Who could have known?" he says.
Hansen moved around Chicago, leaving this apartment when it was turned into a condo, that studio because the rent had been jacked too high. He photographed brides and babies, and stayed in touch with glamour and beauty at Gus Giordano's dance studio and various society functions and as a fixture at the Lyric Opera. His mother died in the 1950s, but Hansen was middle-aged now and not so quick to pull up stakes.
"Chicago is not the place that New York is. It never will be. It's getting to be a great city commercially, but it will never be an artistic city the way New York is. It never seems able to hold on to its really great people. They all end up leaving."
About six years ago, Paul Hansen introduced himself to a woman he kept meeting at society functions. Ann Gerber was intrigued that someone Hansen's age was still covering charity dances and consular balls, and she agreed to take a look at some of his photos. This was the beginning of a five-year working relationship. While Gerber wrote her society column there, Hansen's photos appeared regularly in Skyline, the Pulitzer-Lerner newspaper that bills itself as "Chicago's People Newspaper." But then the Chicago Sun-Times hired her away, and the Sun-Times has its own photographers.
"I'll tell you this," Gerber says, "his photos reproduced better than anyone's. I don't know if it was his eye, his camera, or what, but you could see the glitter on the medals, you could see each individual feather in a woman's dress."
Hansen took the best picture Gerber ever saw of herself.
Bill, Zwecker, who took over Gerber's column at Skyline and is associate editor of the paper, does not use Hansen either, although he was pleased with his work. "I don't know how to put this because Paul is so high-quality, but younger photographers will work for free just to get the credit line in the paper and the exposure. And I'm on a tight budget. If I can get them for free, why pay someone like Paul for them?"
It's the kind of story Hansen says he hears more and more these days. He's approached some of the dance companies in town about taking their publicity photos, only to find out that some studio is going to do them for free.
Hansen told me things were getting pretty tough for him in Chicago. "I'm thinking I'll have to move in order to get more work," he said.
I met Paul Hansen last April near the intersection of Oakdale and Broadway. He was just standing there, holding an old camera. His clothes looked clean but well worn, and his thin body seemed lost inside of them. As I strolled by, Hansen called out to me and asked if he could take my son David's picture.
I wondered if he had any film in the camera. I figured, he's just a little old guy, what harm can he do? He snapped about eight pictures, lining each one up slowly, asking me to move David one foot this way or that way. Amazingly, David cooperated, even sitting still on some neighboring steps. They seemed to be communicating telepathically.
I gave Hansen my business card and never expected to hear from him. Needless to say, the photos, all black and white, were wonderful. David's smile is natural, and he cheerfully showed off his belly in one shot. Hansen captured his sense of play.
Amazing, I thought, for an old man who had never met us before and a boy who was ready for a nap.
During our many interviews, he has repeated one request--"I don't want people to feel sorry for me. Don't make me sound pathetic. I'm not." Judge me, he says, by the quality of my work.
He is not ready to quit yet. "Everyone tells me I'll have to go into a nursing home one of these days. Maybe they're right, but as long as I see someone I think will make a good picture and I can see to focus the camera, I'm gonna keep doing this.
"In some ways, I'm quicker at handling things now than I used to be. I know there is a limit to how long I'll be able to work. I used to be able to work six or seven hours at one of the big parties, then when it was over I'd realize I was tired. I'd be there putting my apparatus away as the cleaning crew was at work. Now I stagger out of the hotel, wondering, how can I get home without having to pay a taxicab?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof, Paul Hansen.