Eva Sereny – Photographer, filmmaker
While Sereny provided numerous publicity stills, it was her pictures of actors and directors off duty that revealed something more intimate than the professional personas usually presented to the world. Sereny did this by staying unobtrusively in the background, so her subjects were barely aware of her presence.
This approach made for some classic shots. A barefoot Paul Newman carries two bottles of beer in each hand while wearing a ‘get really stoned’ t-shirt. Malcolm McDowell smokes a cigarette on the set of Lindsay Anderson’s film, O Lucky Man! (1973). Marlon Brando lights Bernardo Bertolucci’s cigarette while making Last Tango in Paris (1972).
Brando had initially expressed his resistance to photographers, but went on to grant Sereny access not afforded to others. After an initially frosty reception, Raquel Welch did likewise, though Welch never recognised Sereny from their first meeting, and Sereny never let on.
Sereny’s favourite image was one of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Joseph Losey’s film, The Assassination of Trotsky (1972). With Burton playing the title role, Taylor turned up unannounced to see her then husband. The icy look between the soon to be divorced star couple in Sereny’s discretely snapped image speaks volumes.
Also in the film was Austrian actress Romy Schneider. Schneider contacted Sereny a few nights after they met on set requesting a photo session. The result, taken in the small hours, formed the basis of Sereny’s book, Romy in Rome (1998).
Forming such a rapport was typical of the Swiss born photographer. Jacqueline Bisset, who she photographed during filming of Day for Night (1973) wrote a foreword for Through Her Lens: The Stories Behind The Photography Of Eva Sereny (2018), a vital collection of her work. Charlotte Rampling, who was photographed by Sereny on the set of The Night Porter (1974), wrote her a poem.
Sereny went on to make her own films. She did this first with The Dress (1984), about a man buying a new outfit for his mistress. The film starred Michael Palin and Phyllis Logan, and won a BAFTA for Best Short Film. Her only feature, Foreign Student (1994) starred Robin Givens and Marco Hofschneider in an adaptation of Philippe Labro’s novel about a football playing French exchange student who falls in love in racially sensitive America. The empathy she brought to all her work reflected her own essence.
Eva Sereny was born in Zurich, the only child of Hungarian parents. Aged five, she moved to England with her mother after her businessman father, on a trip there, was unable to return home due to the outbreak of World War Two, and instead arranged for his wife and daughter to be with him.
Aged twenty, Sereny moved to Italy, where she met and married engineer Vincio Delleani. She began exploring photography in the 1960s after Delleani had a car accident while the couple and their two young sons were living in Rome. As she told the Guardian in 2018, “It was a close call. I remember sitting beside him in the hospital thinking: My God, but for a few seconds, I would be a widow. I’ve got to do something. I’m quite artistic, though I can’t draw. What about photography?”
Delleani set up a dark room in their basement, while a friend who was head of the Italian Olympic committee drafted her in to document a series of new sports centres being built across the country. She flew to London shortly afterwards, and turned up at the offices of the Times newspaper unannounced with her images. Having been granted a meeting, three days later a full page of her photographs was published as a behind the scenes glimpse at Italy’s forthcoming Olympic plans.
Her film work began on Catch 22 (1970), with director Mike Nicholls so impressed by her initial submissions he kept her on as a special photographer. She went on to Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), and a stream of major motion pictures. Moving into more formally posed portraiture, her work appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine, Newsweek, Vogue, Paris Match, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.
Through Her Lens not only provided a definitive compendium of Sereny’s images. It also showcased a particular era of international cinema. As quoted in the Iconic Images announcement of her passing, when asked how she captured stars in the way she did, Sereny’s reply was simple. “It’s how you approach people,” she said, “life is about that.”
She is survived by her husband, Frank Charnock, who she met in 2009; and her two sons, Riccardo and Alessandro, to Vincio Delleani, who pre-deceased her in 2007 after fifty years of marriage.
The Herald, June 3rd, 2021