Photographing The Other Jane Fonda

David Hurn on why friendship was the key to capturing the real woman behind the Barbarella bombshell

David Hurn

David Hurn Jane Fonda in Barbarella. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

An actor’s relationship with their own image involves a dichotomy, requiring both surrender and control. On the one hand, to perform well in their roles they must override their ego in order to fully inhabit the character they are playing, while on the other, particularly for women actors, the currency placed on looks can mean they are hyper vigilant about how they come across in the media. So, for photographers to create something more meaningful than highly managed vanity shots, they may come up against a battle of wills, which calls for charm and tact to navigate.

Magnum photographer David Hurn has spent his career creating warmly candid photographs of both celebrities and ordinary people, who have shared glimpses of their lives with him. His secret is not a lens, a lighting set-up or a particular camera, but a skill for building a genuine trust with his subjects that puts them at ease. As Hollywood actress Jane Fonda turns 80-years-old, David Hurn recalls fondly his memories of working with her over years, and how he built a particularly special bond with the two-time Oscar winner.

"I remember almost from the word go we were very close"

- David Hurn
David Hurn David Hurn photographing Jane Fonda in the costume as Barbarella during the making of the film. Rome, Italy. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

“I suppose it’s their business to look good,” says David Hurn, empathizing with actors’ plight, but adds, “What to me is slightly amusing, is that I am not absolutely convinced that they know what the best pictures of themselves are.” Hurn came across a classic case of this during his first interactions with Jane Fonda on the Italian set of the 1968 film Barbarella, which was directed by Fonda’s then-husband, the French director Roger Vadim.

David Hurn Jane Fonda and crew on the set of Barbarella. Rome, Italy. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
David Hurn Jane Fonda having her temperature taken. She was very ill during portions of the filming of Barbarella. Rome, Italy. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
David Hurn Jane Fonda is helped into her costume whilst getting her hair fixed for the film Barbarella. Rome, Italy. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
David Hurn Roger Vadim directs Jane Fonda and David Hemmings in the film Barbarella. Rome, Italy. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

Hurn arrived on the production at the request of his friend Tom Carlie, who was the publicist on the film. As per the agreement, Hurn would show Fonda his contact sheets and she would mark off which images she was vetoing. “Bless her,” says Hurn, “she is a great actress but not the best editor of her own pictures. I had learned you do not argue with these people, so I simply put the contacts away, kept them for a week or so, and shot some more pictures.”

Later, when he came back with more pictures, Hurn added a blank version of the previous week’s contact sheets, only for the actress to veto completely different images. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve marked these two identical sheets up differently, isn’t this silly? Wouldn’t it be better if you just had some trust in me and let me get on and do the editing?’ and it was fine.”

“I mean obviously we all have insecurities, sometimes they come out at funny points, and this was her way of feeling she had some control. The second she felt some form of trust she was very happy to let go.”

"The second she felt some form of trust she was very happy to let go"

- David Hurn
David Hurn Jane Fonda in France with Rodger Vadim's children Christian and Natalie. France. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

Fonda’s relationships with directors is similar; when she trusts the directors, she submits fully and produces her best work. The actress credits the success of Klute (1972), for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, to the painstaking craft of director Alan Pakula. She responded to his commitment in kind, devoting herself, body and soul, to her role as New York prostitute Bree Daniels.

"If she is in a movie and doesn’t think the person is that good, she sort of does it herself"

- David Hurn

“If she is in a movie and doesn’t think the person is that good, she sort of does it herself,” says Hurn. There are a number of legendary Hollywood whispers Hurn could be referring to, but most notable is the production of the 1973 movie A Doll’s House, directed by Joseph Losey. According to Losey, Jane Fonda and co-star French actress Delphine Seyrig, an outspoken feminist, had discussed sexism in Losey’s interpretation. They felt that the male characters had been built up from the original Henrik Ibsen play, on which the movie was based, and the female characters pared down. The pair would would hole up together every night to make notes about the changes they wanted to the script in the morning, and Fonda would present Losey with these notes.

Fonda acknowledged this in an interview with The Village Voice. “Every night we would work together, my gaggle of feminists,” she said. “We were trying to get the most important things back into the script. What I wanted to do was to show from my years in France that women can have an external façade that seems frivolous and superficial but is actually serious. Nora (Fonda’s character) was a vital, intelligent woman waiting to explode.”

David Hurn Jane Fonda riding her favourite horse. France. November. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

Hurn fulfilled his assignment by taking the classic in-costume portraits of Fonda as Barbarella, images that would become iconic and are still, to this day, presented to her by fans hoping for an autograph. But his most insightful work was created off set, or at least at the peripheries, where he captured Fonda laughing and joking with the crew.

As Fonda and Hurn’s friendship grew, the photographs became more candid and relaxed. No longer Barbarella, Fonda’s personality – vibrant and fun-loving – came through. “I remember almost from the word go we were very close,” recalls Hurn, “and then we obviously got closer. And then when you have that kind of trust, you can really start to do something better than normal. Photography is a funny business, most of the time you are trying to get just that little bit better. It’s difficult to analyze why.”

David Hurn Jane Fonda, Actress and then husband Roger Vadim, director, at their family home in St Ouen Marchefroid. Jane Fonda with France, Nathalie Vadim (Stroyberg) and Christian Vadim (Deneuve). November. (...)
David Hurn Jane Fonda. 1968. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

According to Hurn, friendship makes better pictures. “Taking the pictures is easy,” he says, “these people” – actors, models, the beautiful and the famous – “are usually, visually, very attractive and they have strong personalities, but you have to get to the point where they stop feeling like they are being photographed. Most pictures you see of these people, it’s obvious that they know they are being photographed. The only way you can do something different from that is to get them so relaxed it doesn’t look like they’ve been photographed.”

David Hurn Jane Fonda in her kitchen. "Jane loves to cook." - David Hurn. France. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
David Hurn American actress Jane Fonda and her then husband Roger Vadim. 1968. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
David Hurn Jane Fonda with then husband Roger Vadim and friends. St. Tropez. France. 1968. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
David Hurn Travelling with dogs to France. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

"It’s the only picture that I have ever got as a sign from her, that we were close"

- David Hurn
David Hurn Jane Fonda in the garden, France. 1967. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

Hurn photographed Fonda at home, catching moments of spontaneity and intimacy. His favorite shot shows her in the swirl of a hammock with her legs in the air, as one of her dogs leaps into the shot. “The thing I love about that photograph is that you can’t take that sort of picture of a big, big movie star unless that person has a lot of trust in you. The extraordinary thing about the pictures Eve Arnold did of Marilyn Monroe, and Joan Crawford even more so, is that they display an intimacy that you wouldn’t expect with that person. So that is really what I was, tongue-in-cheek, saying to Jane when we were reunited for a BBC documentary: that this, to me, is a precious picture. It’s the only picture that I have ever got as a sign from her, that we were close, and it was fun. It’s a nice picture.”

David Hurn Jane Fonda, California. USA. 2017. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos
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