Robert Delpire: A Life Devoted to Publishing Photography

His name may not sound familiar to the younger generation of photographers, but Robert Delpire was responsible for publishing some of the most influential photobooks of the 20th century.

Born in Paris, in 1926, Delpire passed away on September 26, 2017 at the age of 91, after having dedicated 69 years of his prolific life to deliver culture to the audiences in the form of exhibitions, books, advertising and films, among other forms.

In the early 50’s, while studying medicine in Paris at the age of 22, Delpire was assigned to edit the bulletin of the Maison de la Médicine de Paris, Neuf, which he turned into a luxurious magazine with the contributions of writer such as André Breton, Henry Miller and Jean Paul Sartre; and photographers such as Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Werner Bischof, among others.

  • Robert Delpire by his wife, fashion photographer Sarah Moon

After opening his own publishing house, Éditions Delpire, he devoted most of his time to edit and publish photography books. In 1958 he launched the first edition of Robert Frank’s Les Américains, a masterpiece with 83 photogravures, and a design cover by Saul Steinberg, which preceded the first American edition. “Neither did Robert Frank nor I think we were making a cult book in 1958. I’m not sure I like the word. I am wary of formulas and religions.“, Delpire said about the book that changed the notion of objective testimony.

Books on Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Doisneau, Klein, Lartigue and Koudelka followed, just to mention a few. Delpire’s editorial work involved working closely with photographers and to have a defining hand in their careers. Curator Melissa Harris remembers him as a culture person, a renaissance man, beyond labels. Libération, the French newspaper, recalls Delpire’s relationship to each photographer through one of his quotes: “A publisher is a craftsman. He is at the service of the author. To make a good book of photography is not to make a book for oneself but for the author”.

In 1975 Delpire edited Koudelka’s book Gitans, la Fin du Voyage, published in English as Gypsies, another masterpiece that has marked the contemporary history of photography due to a powerful selection of work that “moves us quickly into the visual energy of the community” as wrote photographer Jeffrey Ladd on time.com.

There were no secret formulas for his work; intuition was the key, as he stated in an interview published by aperture.org: “Each time I have to make a choice, for instance to select a good photograph on a contact sheet, to build a sequence, even to make a general decision concerning a book to publish, I am always most comfortable if I follow my first impulse. It would be very pretentious to say that I am always right, but if I do make a mistake, it`s always in accordance with my feelings, my deep convictions (even if I don’t express them). My way of working is much more emotional than intellectual. I feel more than I know.”

Winner several times of the Prix Nadar for books on photography published in France, Delpire also created and directed the arts magazine L’oeil and, in 1963, he opened Gallery Delpire, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, to exhibit photographs and books published by Éditions Delpire, also featuring the work done by illustrators and graphic designers.

His entrepreneurial spirit drove him to open an advertising agency, Delpire Publicité, where novel campaigns for BNP and Citroën were made with photographers like Helmut Newton and Sarah Moon, among others. In the years 1968 and 1975 the advertising house was awarded the Grand Prix de la Publicité for its creative work.

Delpire’s curious nature also drove him to get involved in the production of films, among them is William Klein’s Cassius le grand (Cassiuss the Great, 1964) and Qui-êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, 1966).

In 1982, Delpire was appointed director of the Centre National de la Photographie by Jack Lang, Ministry Minister of Culture, where he organized more than 150 exhibitions in 15 years. While there, he launched Photo Poche books, a series of affordable pocket publications on photography and graphic arts considered to date as a milestone in the world of arts publishing art.

His active approach to photography took him to travel with artists, as Inge Morath recalls, “Delpire accompanied me there (Iran), and then I drove back alone with my Armenian driver. But sometimes even he was afraid. If nomads came, he stayed at a great distance and I went walking towards them, armed with aspirin and sugar.”

In 2009, Les Rencontres d’Arles festival in France staged a retrospective of his work entitled Delpire & Co. The exhibition traveled to the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and to New York in 2012. According to Aperture, the exhibition showcased “Delpire’s rise to prominence in the world of photography through his pioneering and seminal work in magazine and book publishing, films, curatorship, and advertising for the past fifty year”

Robert Delpire was personally awarded the ICP’s Infinity Awards for Lifetime Achievement, The Cultural Award from the German Society for Photography with his wife Sarah Moon, and received the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal for his contribution to the cultural world.

Quotes on Delpire’s legacy

“He was an uncompromising lion (…) He would not, if he felt something was to be done a certain way, let other realities encroach on the making of a book or exhibition. He didn’t care. He moved forward to do what he felt was right. And he was keeping the photographers’ best interests at heart.”, Peter MacGill, of the Pace/MacGill Gallery in Manhattan, said in a telephone interview for The Times.

“Robert Delpire has always contrived to publish books that are as open to the world that surrounds us as they are to our interior world”, Christian Caujolle

“Figure of the photographic medium, friend of the greatest gazes, author of texts of a luminous rigor and simplicity, Robert Delpire leaves us while the generation of post-war photographers disappears little by little. Working alongside the most important signatures, he hammered the need to learn to see, to always even relearn to see. Reflecting on the image was for him ‘an absolute urgency”, Clementine Mercer

Henri Cartier- Bresson, his indefectible friend, confided Delpire a dozen books by saying:  “I am the author, I choose my pictures; the layout and the setting on the walls, it is you”

Alain Genestar: “Delpire was a man of images, a craftsman, a publicist, a graphic designer. He was interested in everything related to photography.”