In 1953, Lucien Hervé accepted UNESCO’s commission to undertake the photographic documentation of the construction of the Organization’s Headquarters, working alongside Marcel Breuer, Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss – the project’s architects – as well as Le Corbusier, member of the Committee on Architecture and Works of Art. From 1953 to 1958, Hervé documented the construction of the site once a week, hence bearing witness through his photography to the controversial introduction of modern architecture in the heart of Paris.
This body of work constituted over a period of several years of construction allows us today to observe and understand the process behind the creation of UNESCO’s Headquarters. Thanks to multiple and fragmentary photos of the whole of the construction, Hervé brings forth the beauty and lyricism of the material and structure, accentuated by the use of light and shadow characteristic of his work.
László Elkán, known as Lucien Hervé, was a French photographer of Hungarian origin born on August 7th, 1910 in Hódmezovásárhely (Hungary). He moved to Budapest with his family at the age of 8, before leaving for Vienna in 1928, where he studied economy and attended drawing classes at the School of Fine Arts. In 1929 he joined his brother in Paris, where he frequently went to museums. After returning briefly to Budapest he regained the French capital and worked an assistant designer, and later as a designer for several fashion houses such as Patou, Rochas, Schiaparelli, Lanvin or Chanel, among others.
In 1938, he worked with the Hungarian photographer Nicolas Müller, writing texts for photojournalism articles published in Marianne Magazine. After the departure of Müller the following year, Hervé took on the role of photojournalist for the magazine (using the name Müller). He joined the infantry at the beginning of the Second World War and, under the Colonel de Lattre de Tassigny in the fifth Regiment, of Infantry, became photographer for the army. Imprisoned on June 4th 1940, Hervé began to paint during his captivity. In 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo for his resistance activities inside the prison camp. Escaping in September, he pursued his activities within the Resistance, joining the clandestine PCF (French Communist Party) in 1943. From then on he used his resistant name, Lucien Hervé.
Hervé took up his activities as a photographer in 1947 and wrote, at the same time, articles on artistic subjects for France Illustration and Point de vue Regards. Two years later, he met Matisse and Le Corbusier during a photographic report on the construction of the “Cité Radieuse” (unit of houses drawn by Le Corbusier). This encounter marked the beginning of a long collaboration between Hervé and Le Corbusier, which ended only with Le Corbusier’s death in 1965. The 1950s were therefore the beginning of an intensive period of photography for Le Corbusier, as well as for several other important architects of that time, such as Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Oscar Niemeyer, Bernard Zehrfuss or Jean Balladur. Hervé hence expressed his taste for modernity, shape and structure. In 1961, taking advantage of his contracts with "Architecture d'aujourd'hui", Gallimard, the French Federation for Electricity and Steel, he travelled around the world (Cambodia, USA, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Sri Lanka, Turkey, etc.) He was later sent on missions, by the director of the French Institute of archaeology in the Middle East, to photograph archaeological sites in Iran, Lebanon and Syria.
In 1965 the first signs of multiple sclerosis appeared and during five years Hervé essentially created collages, often from his own photos. He gradually came back to photography and also continued his research on abstraction, started in the 1940s. From the 1970s, Hervé was elected to participate in numerous juries for diplomas in schools of Architecture and received several awards for his work.
Lucien Hervé passed away on June 26th, 2007 in Paris, at the age of 96, leaving behind him a rich and unique photographic oeuvre. His work went beyond the theme of architecture to include other, sometimes more personal, ones, such as the man in the street. He was one of the undisputed masters of architectural photography of the 20th century.