Saturday 23 September 2017

The Irish paparazzo who charmed Picasso

The Dublin-born son of a Guinness worker, Edward Quinn was a club singer on the French Riviera during its glittering heydey. After getting his hands on a professional camera, writes Lanie Goodman, he began a career that would see him forge a friendship with the great artist Pablo Picasso that lasted 19 years

Edward Quinn and Picasso in Cannes in 1959
Edward Quinn and Picasso in Cannes in 1959
Edward Quinn captures the disorganised chaos of his friend's studio. Photo: Edward Quinn, ©edwardquinn.com Picasso Estate, 2017
Picasso in his bedroom in 1954. Photo Edward Quinn, © edwardquinn.com Picasso Estate, 2017.

On a warm summer day in July 1951, Monaco-based Irish photographer Edward Quinn was paging through the local newspaper and something caught his eye. The great master himself, Pablo Picasso, would be attending the opening of the yearly ceramics exhibition in the nearby hilltop village of Vallauris, known for its pottery.

Armed with his Rolleiflex camera, 31-year-old Quinn jumped into his car and arrived on the scene to shoot a series of images that captured the artist in all his spontaneity. Little did it occur to Quinn (a cabaret singer, musician and self-taught emerging freelance photographer) that this brief encounter with Picasso would lead to a close friendship between the two men lasting 19 years, right up to the end of the artist's life.

Quinn had an eminently likeable quality that inspired trust. Tall, thin, and handsome, with a dapper little moustache and shy, friendly smile, the Dublin-born photographer hardly fit the intrusive image of a celebrity-chasing paparazzo. As he would later recount in his book The Private Picasso, the real secret was knowing how to keep out of Picasso's way. "This one doesn't disturb me," Quinn heard the artist tell a friend.

Along with discretion, Quinn's keen eye and superb black-and-white portraits prompted Picasso to invite him into his world, both inside the studio and at home with friends and family.

Now the fruits of that friendship have gone on display at the Musée Picasso in the south of France. Housed in the 12th-century stone Château Grimaldi in Antibes, 'Picasso Sans Cliché, Photography by Edward Quinn', has 126 images that span from the 1950s to 1972, a year before the artist's death.

The pictures offer privileged glimpses into Picasso's persona, capturing fleeting meditative moments when the artist is absorbed in creation. Highlights include a close-up of the 70-year-old artist at the 1951 Vallauris ceramic exhibition, brows furrowed in thought, smoking a cigarette as he gazes intently at something outside of the frame. Another shows the artist kneading a small bird clay sculpture at the Madoura atelier, where Picasso discovered his newly-found passion.

Quinn also captures the excitement of summertime bullfights held in Vallauris - in the grandstands, we witness a complicitous moment between Jean Cocteau, Picasso and his future wife, Jacqueline, applauding with radiant smiles; and there is the artist, bare-chested, in an open woven shirt and sombrero-style hat, flanked by his two young children, Claude and Paloma, eyes riveted on the arena.

Over the years, Quinn shot more than 9,000 photos of the artist and was a regular visitor to Picasso's villa, La Californie in Cannes, and Notre Dame de Vie in Mougins. "In Quinn's photos, you can really feel Picasso's presence in the studio, even in his absence," Jean-Louis Andral, the exhibition curator, tells me. "Since Picasso pretty much lived where he worked, there was no real separation."

Indeed, the empty studio shots - a joyous jumble of sculptures, paintings, drawings and tables overflowing with paints, newspapers, books and rolled canvases - offer compelling portraits of the artist.

"What I also find very touching is how Quinn was able to capture the tenderness between Picasso and Jacqueline," Andral says. "You can really get a sense of their passion, despite the 43-year age difference."

Predictably, Quinn's reputation as Picasso's photographer made it easier to approach other painters on the Côte D'Azur, including Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon and David Hockney.

The son of a Guinness brewery worker and educated in Dublin, Edward Quinn earned a certificate in metal-plate work, only to decide he'd rather play guitar and double bass in a band in Belfast. After World War II, he switched jobs to became a radio navigator for Chartair, an airline based in Tangier, and he took his first pictures with a simple folding Kodak camera. In 1948, Quinn met his future wife, Zürich-born Gret Sulser, on a flight to Marseille. Before long, they were married in Monaco, where she had settled.

Working as a Latino-style crooner in Riviera nightclubs (under the name of 'Eddie Quinero'), Quinn eventually got his hands on a professional camera and began shooting bathing beauties on the beach, hoping to find something more newsworthy to sell to magazines. In 1950, after learning an Irish horse had won a jumping contest in Nice, he packed up his gear and photographed the triumphant horseman, Captain Turbidy. The Irish Independent published the photo, Quinn's first. "At that moment," Quinn later recalled, "I began to take my work as a photographer seriously... and transformed the tiny kitchen of a kindly Monégasque friend into a darkroom."

In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Côte d'Azur was a millionaire's playground, teeming with celebrities, film stars and crown heads of Europe, Quinn's easy charm would serve him well. He started working for Paris-Match and other agencies, and photographed the likes of Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier III (immortalising their first shy handshake), Brigitte Bardot, Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando, among others.

"He had a knack for getting close to stars and became good friends with people like Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak," says Quinn's nephew, Wolfgang Frei, a Swiss TV journalist who often accompanied his uncle as an assistant ("I basically drove him around when I was in my twenties").

"In those years, there were no agents or PR people so the contact was direct. Quinn knew all the concierges at the Carlton and the Majestic in Cannes. He also had connections at the airline companies for tip-offs on stars arriving at the Nice airport."

Among his uncle's favourite anecdotes was Quinn's account of meeting Audrey Hepburn back in 1951 when the still unknown actress was shooting a film called Monte Carlo Baby.

"He spotted something special about Hepburn right away and suggested a photo session in the perched medieval village of Èze, about 30 minutes away. So, they climbed into Quinn's little Belgian car, which was quite old, and chugged up the steep hill. On the way there, the car broke down, so he had to ask Audrey to get out and push it."

Today, Frei and his wife Ursula manage the Edward Quinn archive and continue to publish stunning posthumous books (Riviera Cocktail [2007], Stars and Cars of the 50s [2008], Celebrity Pets [2014]) from a bygone era. "We have something like 180,000 negatives in the archives and only 30,000 have been scanned," says Frei.

Their next project is organising an exhibition based on Quinn's book, James Joyce's Dublin [1974], a compilation of street scenes matched with selected quotes of Joyce's works. "Quinn is known as a Riviera celebrity photographer, but he was also interested in shooting street children, bars, the races and the poor," Frei says. "He would have really liked to do a show in Dublin - Ireland always remained very important to him."

Picasso Sans Cliché: Photographies d'Edward Quinn takes place at the Musée Picasso in Antibes until July 2

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