Friday, April 25, 2008

Photograph by Grey Villet

Yesterday, I was visiting Clemson University for professional reasons and met the photographer Sam Wang, the school's Alumni Distinguished Professor of Art, Emeritus, and -- as usually happens when I'm around anyone who loves or practices photography -- I brought up the subject of favorite artists in the field.

My own is generally unknown, although I'll bet anything you've seen his work, as he took innumerable iconic images that are constantly duplicated.

His name is Grey Villet; I think the last name rhymes with filet, but I'm not sure. In fact, I'm not sure of anything about him, except that he worked many years for Life magazine. Google coughs up some 2,000-plus hits on his name, but those tend to be photo attributions and prints, of which there are many. According to the Glens Falls, NY, Obituary Index, , he died eight years ago at the age of 72, and he apparently published a few books with his wife, a Time journalist, which have since gone out of print. I can't find an obituary. If you Google "Grey Villet" and obituary, you mostly get links to pictures, great pictures, of famous people who died.

So Grey Villet lives on, I guess, mainly through his work if not his name; luckily, his work can be accessed through this treasure trove of images: more than 3,000.

The one I've pilfered here is from a photo essay that was in Life Magazine in 1962. The magazine used to run a lot of those back then. I didn't discover it until I saw it in a book that came out sometime in the late 1970s, and it stuck with me for good.

The name of the story was "The Lash of Success," and it was the story of a hard-driving businessman who was the very essence of a public success and a private failure -- the kind of corporation man who stayed constantly involved in business and could barely keep his family together. The pictures said it all, as the one shown here does: there were great shots of him bullying employees, of him trying to make nice with his wife with his wife by giving her a new coat, of him leaving for a business trip and saying goodbye, once again, to the daughter whose childhood he was missing.

The pictures had a way of infecting my imagination for good, and they stuck with me the way certain movies do, the ones I'm drawn to over and over again.

Grey Villet was, I imagine, the essence of a working photographer, an anonymous man who did great work and didn't call unneccessary attention to himself -- just the border credit, "Photograph by Grey Villet."

Even if you have no idea what's going on, the pictures all capture a moment. They aren't artsy, but a good many of them strike me as perfect.


Anonymous said...

You're right on about Grey Villet who was born in South Africa. He pronounced his surname with a hard "t," as in "let." There's an interesting interview with him is the 1998 book "LIFE Photigraphers: What They Saw" by John Loengard, published by Bulfinch Press. Available used on Amazon. Or or possibly in your local library.

Anonymous said...

You're right on about Grey Villet (South African born, the surname ends with a hard "t" as in "let.") There'a an intersting interview with his in the 1998 Bulfinch Press book "LIFE Photographers: What They Say" by John Loengsrd.Secon hand on Amazon or in libraries.

RW said...

Thanks ever so. I'll get the book and report back. This is someone I'm dying to know more about!

anivil said...

Weird, as I prepare to create a website for my dad's work, I'm searching for place-holder images of his to get started while wasting time at work, and I come across your post. My dad (yes, pronounced w/the hard t-a Dutch basterdization of the original french name that was spelled Villette) made many beautiful pictures and he would be glad of your tribute. He was a wonderful person as well as an insightful artist (he was a sculptor too...) My mom is working on a book of his work. If she gets a publisher look for it in the next year or so.

RW said...

Well that just makes my day. So glad you saw the post. I wish I had known your dad. I'm a huge fan of his work -- and whenever conversation turns to favorite photographers, I'm always the one who says "Grey Villet," although I usually have to do a little explaining. I so hope your mom gets a book together. I know one buyer she'll have. Someday I'd like to just look at a mountain of his photographs and write an essay.

a Villet said...

Wanted to let you know that there is now an official site of Grey Villet's work:
In addition, both NYTimes and AOL pixcetera will be launching tribute galleries in the week of 8/18.
Enjoy the images!

Jill said...

As background.....
Grey Villet is a descendant of Charles Mathurin Villet who arrived in Cape Town 'about 1803 from Saint Domingue (Haiti).
CM Villet established the French theatre in Cape Town, was involved in opera, established the first menagerie in Cape Town, and was a seedsman / botanist. In 1804 he 'started a school in which he taught French, Dutch, English and arithmetic'.
His son Carolus Johannes (Jean) was a 'flower painter and dealer in natural history material'.
Botanical exploration of Southern Africa).

I am a co -researcher of Villet family tree