While most photographers are known for their focus on a singular idea or subject matter, John Swope remains an exception to the rule. He captured a broad spectrum of subjects in black and white. Yet each of his photographs carries a distinct and indelible signature of an artist with an inherent sense of aesthetics as well as a keen eye for the human condition.
Swope was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1908. As a student at Harvard, he joined the "University Players," a theatrical group whose members included Henry Fonda, Josh Logan and Jimmy Stewart. Swope forged close friendships that would last a lifetime and influence a career.
Swope discovered photography in 1936 after taking a camera along on a yacht race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The avid sailor became fascinated with its possiblities and, upon returing home to Los Angeles, used his position as production assistant to Leland Hayward to capture behind-the-scenes images of Hollywood during its Golden Age. His work led to publication of his first book, Camera Over Hollywood (Random House).
In 1938, Swope was commissioned by Henry Street Settlement House to document the work of nurses in Harlem and the Lower East Side. The following year, he and JOsh Logan were sent by Harper's Bazaar as a writer/ photographer team to cover South America. At the onset of World War II, he enlisted as a U.S. Army flight instructor. When the brass learned of his photography skills, he was teamed with John Steinbeck. The collaboration between photographer and writer resulted in Bombs Away (Viking), a revealing book that documented the pilot-training program. Later he was reassigned to Edward Steichen's U.S. Navy photographic unit. He was in Japan to capture the sighting of the Declaration of Surrender, and remained on hand to photograph the release of Allied POW's.
In 1943, Swope married actress Dorothy McGuire. He joined Life magazine's stable of freelance photographers after the war and, over the course of the next 14 years, produced an extensive body of work for publication. He specialized in documenting the world of theater and film, and in creating natural portraits of celebrities. Swope had the unique ability to juxtapose his subjects with specific elements from their environment which revealed intimate aspects of their lives.
Between 1956 and 1978, Swope traveled the world, turning his camera on people and places. In 1975, he photographed the domains of the maharajahs of India for James Ivory's Autobiography of a Princess (Harper & Row). Influenced by Mondrian's use of linear space, he created deceptively simple but well-thought-out pictures that are intricate in composition and infused with emotion. Hallmarks of his work are the use of available light; shooting scenes from unusual angles; and informal portraits of people made possible by Swope's easy, often humorous rapport with people. His unvarying advice to neophyte photographers was to "keep it simple." Swope was a master practitioner of this most difficult of arts.
Over the years his work was displayed at galleries and museums, including the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Joclyn Art Museum in Omaha, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
John Swope died in Los Angeles in 1979.