Ylla : the birth of modern animal photography Pryor Dodge ; foreword by Maneka Gandhi


Camilla Koffler, known by her artist name Ylla, was born in Vienna in 1911, but her parents were Hungarian expatriates. She had a peripatetic childhood and after her parents’ divorce found solace in rescuing strays. She attended The Fine Arts School in Belgrade and soon the animals found their way into her artistic creation. She transferred to Paris at twenty for a sculpture class and soon met fellow Hungarian artists. Her chance meeting with the portrait photographer Ergy Landau led her to be employed to retouch photos. On a trip to Normandy she met the painter Braque and decided to shift from sculpture to photography. She took pictures of farm animals near Dieppe and on her return photographed a stray cat. Upon seeing all those animal photos, her boss encouraged her to work in that direction. Her breakthrough came the same year, when the magazine L’Art Vivant published her “études d’animaux” (April 1933). The same month she exposed in a group exhibition and was mentioned in the press. Thus followed a solo exhibition in the same gallery and the Revue française de photographie et de cinématographie claimed that Ylla had the “Sense of the Beast” of “those who live in harmony with animals”. She had found her niche in the Paris of the 30s and it was another Hungarian, a photographic press agent called Charles Rado, who would promote her in the magazine world. He also made her publish books for adults and children.

When World War II started she was anxious to leave Europe and knew Varian Fry, member of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) in Marseille, who helped refugees avoid deportation. She found a sponsor in the person of Beaumont Newhall, curator of the Department of Photography at the MoMa, who had exhibited pictures by her in the museum. In 1941 she was to board one of the last boats leaving Marseille. She got famous in the US by chance while photographing the two pandas, gifted by China’s first lady, Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek, in the Bronx Zoo. One panda bit her in the leg and that made the headlines, getting her numerous articles, even in the New York Times. She got commissioned by magazines and published new books in the States, even two with Jacques Prévert. Her dream to go to Africa came through in 1952 and she spent 3 months in Kenya and Uganda returning with 3000 pictures. Her subsequent book Animals in Africa, was one of the first on that theme.

Another country that attracted her was India. She spontaneously sent a copy of her African animal book to the Maharajah of Mysore, knowing that he was a lover of wildlife and photography. She immediately got an invitation, and her trip was partly sponsored by the magazine Sports illustrated. Her seven months trip exceeded all her expectations, meeting not only wild animals, but Nehru, Indira Gandhi and even film director John Huston on a shoot. Towards the end of her stay the magazine wanted a feature on camel races in Jodhpur, but Ylla decided to follow a better proposal, the bullock cart races near Bharatpur. She wanted to capture the entire race and thus photograph from the roof of a Land Rover. She was convinced to sit in the spare tire instead, but the car collided with a bump and she fell out hitting the hood of the vehicle before bumping her head on the ground. She died the next day, despite an operation performed by a brain surgeon on her. The book Animals in India was published posthumously in 1958.

This book is exceptional, because Ylla’s pictures are seen in a new light, thanks to the advances made in photography editing. The author Pryor Dodge is the godson of Ylla and the inheritor of Ylla’s estate.

Available at the library

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