French photographer Sam Lévin (1904 - 1992) was one of the most important glamour photographers of the 20th Century. He photographed generations of actors and actresses, artists, politicians and royalty. Lévin's work embraces the Golden Age of French cinema perfectly. For 20 years, he was the photographer of Brigitte Bardot, and his photos of her contributed to a radically new image of women in the 1960’s.
Alain Delon. French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 22. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Marina Vlady. French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 74. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Johnny Hallyday. French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 171. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Right From the Heart
Sam Lévin was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1904. Two years later, the rising anti-Semitism forced his parents to move to France. Sam Lévin attended classes to become a chemic, but since the age of 7, Lévin’s passion had been photography. As a young man he could start to work as a photographer for a Northern-French newspaper and soon Lévin sold his pictures to such magazines as Match and Paris Soir and later to the New York Times. In 1934, Lévin and his assistant Lucienne Chevert started their own studio in Paris. Their cooperation at this portrait studio continued till Chevert’s death in 1982. In 1935 Sam Lévin was asked to replace a sick photographer at a film set. This proved to be a great start for a career as a set photographer. For the famous film maker Jean Renoir, Lévin made the set photo’s for the film classic La grande lllusion/The Great Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir). Renoir taught Lévin that "you never should film (photograph) something that doesn’t come right from the heart". This would become Lévins motto, as well in his portrait photography. Renoir asked Lévin also to photograph his films La Marseillaise/The Marseillaise (1938, Jean Renoir), La bête humaine/The Human Beast (1938, Jean Renoir) starring Jean Gabin, and La règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir) with Nora Gregor. Later Lévin would also work with other major European film makers of his time: Max Ophüls, René Clair, Henri Georges Clouzot and Jean Cocteau.
Gérard Philipe. French Postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 371. Photo by Sam Levin.
Simone Signoret. French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 195. Publicity card for Les carbones Korès. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Martine Carol. French postcard by Edition du Globe (EDUG), Paris, no. 321. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Main Claim to Fame
Sam Lévin’s main claim to fame is not his set photography but his portrait photography. He became one of the greatest celebrity photographers in France. He combined ‘chic’ with infallible technique and thus he built an incomparable portrait gallery. In the intimacy of his beautifully decorated studio and thanks to his modest character and his personal interest, many film stars felt comfortable. The results were pictures which showed the natural beauty of his models. He allowed the spectator to desire. Sam Lévin suggested eroticism and sexuality, but did not show them. His erotic suggestions are shiny eyes or lips and the stylization of the body like an amphora. Among the film stars whom he portrayed are Jean Marais, Simone Signoret, Jean Gabin, Romy Schneider, Alain Delon, Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, Yves Montand and Edith Piaf. Even the Empress of Persia, Farah Diba, and Princess Grace of Monaco asked him to make their picture. Skilled in his use of colour, he glorified actresses by creating a modern, striking and timeless image. Using black and white, Sam Lévin studied each face and worked on the pose and the lighting to model his figure. Out of France, Lévin also worked for Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and for the Cinecittà studio in Rome. There Lévin pictured such international superstars as Burt Lancaster, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Orson Welles, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
Gina Lollobrigida. French postcard by Editions du Globe (E.D.U.G.), Paris, no. 360. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Dominique Wilms. French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 394. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Brigitte Bardot. French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 356. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Sensuality and Slight Immorality
Sam Lévin's strongest work is of Brigitte Bardot. 'Discovering' the girl in the mid 1950's, he was the one who considerably contributed to Bardot's early career with images 'of sensuality and slight immorality.' During this time, France was looking for a new symbol of the nation and via Levin's images, found this in Bardot. Portraying her in vibrant colors, with tousled hair and bare feet, Levin broke away from traditional studio shoot conventions to create a new fashion aesthetic and sexual vocabulary. Thus conjuring a refreshing image of childish naiveté, coupled with an almost animalistic sexuality, which made Bardot a young tabula rosa on which France was able to stamp their objectives of modernity. Levin's photos of Bardot were one of the main forces that propelled Bardot's image to compete with Hollywood sirens for publicity. In 1960 it was rumored that Levin's photo of Bardot from behind in a white corset sold more postcards than that of the Eiffel Tower. In 1992, Sam Lévin died in Paris, shortly after he was honored with a major exhibition in Japan. His wife, Sabine Lévin donated his complete photographic heritage to the French state: about 400,000 negatives with the portraits of more than 4,000 people made between 1931 and 1985.
Brigitte Bardot. German postcard by Ufa (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft), Berlin-Tempelhof, no. CK 346. Photo: Sam Lévin/Ufa.
Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot. German postcard by Krüger, no. 902/96, ca. 1961. Photo Sam Levin. Publicity photo for Amours célèbres (1961, Michel Boisrond). Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot starred in the segment Agnès Bernauer.
Brigitte Bardot. French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 1018. Photo: Sam Lévin.
Sources: James Hyman Fine Art, RMN Grand Palais, CultuurArchief.nl (Dutch), and IMDb.