Sam Haskins produced one of the great pioneering moments in the history of post war photography, the production of Five Girls in 1962, which liberated figure photography from cliché. It instantly grabbed the attention of fellow photographers like Andreas Feininger, who articulated his appreciation of Sam’s groundbreaking work in reviews in New York and Jeanloup Sieff who paid tribute with a fresh and liberated set of figure photographs in Paris in 1963. In the subsequent years photographers like Wingate Paine virtually built entire careers on the influence offered by Sam’s work. David Bailey drew heavily on Cowboy Kate for his sixties book ‘Goodbye Baby and Amen’.
Several years later and unbeknown to Sam, Andreas Feininger dedicated his 1973 book ‘Photographic Seeing’ to Sam with the words: “To Sam Haskins, a photographer who better than most, knows how to see”.
Fan mail in the mid sixties - when photographing the nude was not accepted in the way it is today - suggested that Five Girls and his next book Cowboy Kate were equally popular with both genders, a particular point of pride for Sam. Contemporary but slightly younger than his two greatest photographic heroes Richard Avedon (three years older than Sam) and Irving Penn (9 years older), Sam’s background was a startling contrast to these two giants of New York photography. Sam was born in 1926 in Kroonstad, a quintessentially provincial town in the centre of South Africa with a railway station where his father worked. It was a quiet, sleepy place, a river meandering along the southern edge past modest homes with neat gardens. To a small boy with a deep instinctive thirst for beauty and art, it was far from an ideal environment. Sam set about creating his own creative environment, an escape into an alternative world, with drawing, kite making, magic tricks and an immersion in the only high octane visual splendour to visit his country town, the circus.
Aware when the circus train was due to pull into railway sidings he would be there an hour ahead of time, eagerly awaiting the sights, sounds, smells and characters. In those days South African circuses were among the best in the world with local talent supported by acts from Eastern Europe and America, plenty of exotic animals and not least of all large circus bands with excellent musicians. As he became older and stronger he trained with the circus and was offered a job as a trapeze catcher but his parents didn’t agree to the plan. Sam’s early immersion in the power of the circus to entertain and create an alternative sexy world later became a characteristic of how he presented his own visual thinking to the world. This was especially true of his slide show, a pre-internet form of social networking and direct publication, shown to colleagues and fans in over 50 cities around the world (sometimes with audiences of up to 2000 at a time) over a period of more than 30 years. Simply referred to as the ‘Sam Haskins Slide Show’ it was photographic art presented as entertainment, a visual tour-de-force synchronised to music, with over 500 medium format glass mounted slides. He used a self operated magic lantern projector, sliding the manual carriage left to right every four seconds as a small bulb rigged to a darkroom timer prompted him to display the next image. In true circus tradition his audience expected constant creative innovation and Sam was happy to oblige, always adding fresh images and musical tracks.
In 1968 as a natural extension of the success he had enjoyed on the world stage he decided to emigrate to London. Here he had two studios, first two adjoining buildings in Glebe Place, Chelsea and then later a purpose built house and studio in Wimbledon.
Starting in 1970, his slide show was a way of directly exchanging ideas with fellow visual professionals and followers of photography. Almost a decade earlier, in partnership with his wife Alida, he had made extremely effective use of book publishing to reach a wide global audience. Sam’s unapologetic celebration of life, beauty, sensuality and visual ideas combined with good historical timing meant that his books sold in numbers which are impossible to even contemplate in a 21st century flooded with free web images. Cowboy Kate, first published in 1964 (awarded the Prix Nadar), a whimsical Western tale was the first story telling coffee table book and the first to use grain as a conscious creative tool in print making. It became an ubiquitous reference for the design, fashion, movie and photographic industries, and also sold roughly a million copies.
The characteristics of Sam’s studio in Johannesburg in the sixties - the decade when he produced his four seminal black and white books - was one of entrepreneurship, eclectic craftsmanship and hands-on creativity at every level. There were no model agencies, professional make-up artists or set builders. Sam applied equal levels of skill to advertising work as he did to the production of his creative projects like Cowboy Kate.
The natural female beauties in his work, the quintessential examples of which were Gill from Five Girls and Cowboy Kate, were often amateur models, or just starting their modelling careers, family, friends or girls that Alida recruited on the street. These unusual models, although of course highly talented in their own right, helped Sam to create the unaffected sexy look that was part of his creative signature and the central theme of his artistic output. He mastered many photographic disciplines, glamour, fashion, still life, ethnographic, commercial, industrial and portraiture but he was most famous for the recurring living theatre of a female model in front of the camera in the studio. Right from the first images that hit the world stage with his book, Five Girls, in 1962, to the very last shoot he ever did, a black and white fashion spread for Harper’s Bazaar in 2007, he came back to that deep fascination with beauty, style and a tireless study of the nude with fresh approaches that explored the pure dynamics of raw photography along with mood, dynamism, abstraction and graphic illustration.
Sam’s serious artistic education started in high school when his family moved to Johannesburg. This is where, while playing truant from school, he immersed himself in the art books at the public library. School years soon became art school years, starting with an art course offered at the technical college in Johannesburg where he received a solid traditional training in working from the figure in drawing, painting and sculpting.
Some time after graduation his art school introduced a part-time photography course. The classes not only ignited his passion for photography but gave him the facility to put together the portfolio required for admission to the Bolt Court School in London, the precursor the London College of Printing, now called the London College of Communication.
For a culture-hungry student from Africa, the wealth of offerings in London were a bonanza. He arrived there in April 1949 and stayed until December 1951. The timing coincided with the Festival of Britain, a huge cultural event and a conscious lifting of the post-war national spirit through the power of design. It captivated the nation’s interest and left a lasting impression on Sam. The dozens of undeveloped bomb sites, food rationing and the suffocating smog were depressing but the excitement of cultural renewal, creative energy and freedom was pure rapture for a kid fresh out of a colonial college. London also offered him hitherto unprecedented access to the work of leading photographers. He clearly recalled discovering Irving Penn while paging through a copy of Graphis magazine in the reading room of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Back in South Africa he met up with Alida. Soon after their marriage they established the Johannesburg studio which became Sam’s creative engine of the sixties.
Sam’s artistic passions were wide ranging. From the start of his marriage he and Alida collected music, furniture, art, graphic icons, vintage toys, drawings, paintings, antiques, books and sculpture. They both had a lightness of touch and excellent taste, never afraid to mix high art and the whimsical, both in the decoration of his home and in his images. The shared collecting of fun and beautiful things with Alida also turned her into an outstanding stylist and although uncredited she made a sustained contribution to the clothes and objects in his shots throughout his career.
He never stopped studying the history of photography and carefully following the work of contemporary masters and rising stars but always within a broad artistic context. Whenever he lectured and taught he urged photographers to pay heed to all other visual disciplines, especially cinema and illustration and to avoid the trap of only studying the work of other photographers.
His own passion for collecting didn’t stop with things that could fit into the house, he restored two vintage cars, a 1928 Model A Ford and a 1936 Bentley, in separate years, both cars won the Concourse d’Élégance for the best restored car in the Vintage and Veteran Car Club in Johannesburg and Sam rallied both cars in Africa, ending up with a shelf full of trophies. The drop head vintage Bentley was also his regular transport in Johannesburg.
It was in his nature to put his passions on display; with his work, his hobbies (which included carpentry, framing and classical music) and with the original and brilliant decoration of his living and working spaces, in effect he said to the world “that is who I am”. The passion of his professional display was rarely matched with personal relationships. He was an impeccable host, warm and correct to a fault but few people really got to know the man. He worked to the very end of his life then suddenly became very ill and died, leaving his work as the sole substantial facet and legacy of his larger than life and yet deeply private mind.
In terms of appreciating his photography he was a photographer's photographer, a master of studio and location shooting and one of the great black and white printers of his generation. Sam managed his shoots with a malleable exploitation of live accidents of light, model direction and styling opportunities on set. He planned meticulously but then worked very extemporaneously, in particular wielding lights like a painters brush, never using the same set-up twice in a row.
Always, admired for his technique as well the ideas and visual thinking, his early black and white masterpieces were later complemented, from the late 60s onwards with decades of refining colour montage techniques - all executed without the help of Photoshop. He never stopped taking straight photographs, especially portrait and fashion and some calendars but Sam had an instinctive passion for narrative. This led him to become a master of book layout and the double page spread. In line with his passions for dance, cinema and classical music, simply working with a left to right narrative and the side-by-side dialogue of page layout left him yearning for another dimension, the freedom to juxtapose into the plane of the image. The illustrators that he so admired in the 60s and 70s were using collage and montage unconstrained by the single exposure of the camera. Sam wanted the same narrative power in a single image and used every technique in the book, adapting according to the needs of the idea; double exposure (in the camera and in the darkroom) optical glass at 45 degrees (a pure in-camera montage technique), colour transparency sandwiching, complex mixtures of tungsten and flash lights with the model moving, photographs of prints and the use of constructed miniature sets.
His content spanned a huge range of work from the ethnic art homage seen in 'African Image' 1967 to his books of nudes, 'Five Girls', 'Cowboy Kate', 'November Girl' and the polished graphic photo illustrations in colour first seen in 'Haskins Posters', the 30 years of calendar production from 1970 to 2000 (primarily for Pentax but also for many other multi-national clients), creative interpretations of cities, ‘Sam Haskins a Bologna’, to the fashion work done in the last decade of his life. It was ironic that in his mid seventies the fashion industry 'discovered' the master photographer whom they had been 'referencing' for decades.
Asked at an interview in New York in September what he thought of the many photographers who relentlessly copied his work, he said he felt sorry for them. This wasn’t said with any condescension but with genuine sadness. He saw the imperative of producing new and original work as a basic responsibility of being an artist and photographer and couldn’t contemplate a working process that didn’t embrace the discipline of genuine fresh creativity.
While his images spanned a wide gamut from tender, sensual and profound to whimsical and humorous, he was, in every respect, hard core about the photography itself and also set relentlessly high standards of presentation. Printing was always a critical step of Sam's controlled brand of creative photography. Unlike many famous photographers, Sam always did his own black and white printing but stopped using a wet darkroom in 2001. His bold talent in the darkroom allowed Sam to make a critical creative contribution to the history of photography, principally pioneering the use of grain as a conscious element, but also to produce his signature brand of high contrast prints. His black and white prints had an exciting tension between the images and a distinct consciousness on the part of the viewer of the visceral image chiaroscuro created by a kind of hybrid inky charcoal richness on the surface of the print. Handling Sam’s black and white prints speaks to the viewer of painting with light on an almost abstract level, both in the studio and in the darkroom.
He loved the opportunity offered by digital remastering of early work and said inkjet printing produced the best prints of his work that he had ever seen. In 2002 he and Alida moved to Australia and built the third home of their marriage in an idyllic part of the Southern Highlands, South of Sydney. In 2006 he republished Cowboy Kate in a Director’s Cut edition and in the same year had his first retrospective and first national museum exhibition, ‘Portraits and Other Stories’, at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.
From 2007 to 2009 he worked with his son Ludwig and grandson Oren to produce ‘Fashion Etcetera’. It was to be the first retrospective thematic slice through his archive and Sam’s first all digital book production. The project offered a chance to re-master his pre-Photoshop montage images and to air a mix of old favourites, rarely seen and unpublished work. The book and exhibition were sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger and the launch/exhibition was presented at Milk Gallery in New York in September 2009.
While in New York Sam was touched by the endless stream of photographers who arrived with boxes and rucksacks containing well worn copies of his books to sign. He lost count of the number of colleagues, including leading photographers, who told him that they had chosen to become photographers because of his work. He also had his portrait taken by Platon Antoniou the renowned portrait photographer on contract to The New Yorker, who said about Sam “I am not a fan, I am a devotee”.
Each new generation of young photographers and lovers of photography produces a fresh batch of fans because Sam's images speak of common longings and celebrations across time.
Sam suffered a stroke on the day that his Fashion Etcetera book launch/exhibition opened at Milk Gallery in New York on September 19th 2009 and took his own life at his home in Bowral, Australia on November 26th, 2009. He is survived by his wife Alida, two sons and two grandchildren.
This blog, started in December 2006, is being maintained by Sam's son Ludwig.
Sam Haskins Obituary,