Born in New York in 1893, Florence Henri left the city when she was two years old after the death of her mother. She was thrown into a peripatetic life, travelling between her mother’s relatives in Silesia (then part of Germany), a convent school in Paris, and family homes in London and the Isle of Wight. As an adult her travels continued: studying music in Rome, relocating to Berlin during World War One, acquiring Swiss citizenship through a hasty marriage, and moving to Paris in 1925, where she studied painting under Fernand Léger.
In 1927, when she was 34, Henri enrolled as a non-matriculating student at the Bauhaus in Dessau, where she studied photography with László Moholy-Nagy and struck up a close friendship with Lucia Moholy. Between 1928 and the late 1930s she created the photography that she is now best-known for, often using prisms and reflections to complicate her images and experimenting with techniques such as photomontage, multiple exposures and photograms.
“With Florence Henri’s photos, photographic practice enters a new phase, the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today,” wrote Moholy-Nagy in 1928. As his words suggest, Henri was celebrated in her day, and her work exhibited in shows including Das Lichtbild in 1931. Moving to Paris, she opened a successful studio and worked on advertising projects as well as her own images. Her work later became overlooked, however, and she renounced photography in the early 1960s.
Fortunately in the 1970s she lived to see it being rediscovered, and her images are now held by major institutions around the world. Henri died in France in 1982. Recently her work has been shown in exhibitions at MoMA in 2007 and 2015, at the Centre Pompidou, and in a major retrospective, Mirror of the Avant-Garde, at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2012, which included 130 images from her archive. London’s Atlas Gallery is now holding a large sale of her work, including paintings as well as photographs.
Florence Henri: Reflecting Bauhaus is on show until 18 May at Atlas Gallery, London. www.atlasgallery.com