Hy Hirsh

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Hy Hirsh
Born Hyman Hirsh
(1911-10-11)October 11, 1911
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died November, 1961
Paris, France
Nationality American
Known for Photography, Film, Animation
Spouse(s) Mae Agronowsky (1934-1936); Marie Gattman (1939-1961)

Hyman "Hy" Hirsh (October 11, 1911, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - November 1961, Paris, France), was an American photographer and experimental filmmaker. He is regarded as a pioneer in the field of visual music,[1] as well as one of the first cinematographers to use computer graphics in a film.[2]

Life and career[edit]

Hy Hirsh was born in 1911 to Russian immigrants Max and Olga Hirsh. The family moved to Southern California in 1916 where Hy Hirsh developed an interest in filmmaking and photography.[1] At age 19 he began working in Hollywood and was employed by Columbia Studios from 190-36 as an editor, cameraman and still photographer. He began side work as an art photographer in 1932 and had his first solo exhibition in 1935.

In 1936 Hirsh was employed as a photographer by President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, and in 1937 he turned to avant-garde cinema, playing a comic role in the satirical experimental film, Even—As You And I.[3] In 1937, Hirsh moved to San Francisco where he became the official photographer for both the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, where photographed artwork, processed film and made prints. He also discreetly used the museum's darkroom for his own artistic pursuits until he left the museum in 1954.[1]

Throughout the 1940s Hirsh worked as a cameraman, technician and collaborator with numerous abstract filmmakers, including Sidney Peterson, Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, Frank Stauffacher, Patricia Marx and Larry Jordan.[4] He had participated in the creation of more than a dozen films before starting to make his own abstract animated shorts in 1951. An avid jazz fan, Hirsh used the music of Thelonious Monk and The Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as African drumming and Caribbean carnival band to score his films.[5][6] His love of music became so intertwined with his filmmaking and photography that it is now regarded today as "visual music.[1]

In 1955 Hirsh relocated to Spain, then the Netherlands where he worked at a puppet animation studio. Commercial photo work for Vanity Fair, Elle, Réalités and other magazines brought him to Paris, France, where he continued to make experimental films. His shorts, Gyromorphosis (1956) and Autumn Spectrum (1957) won awards at the 1958 Brussels Experimental Film Competition.[7] His films were often accompanied by live jazz musicians and involved multiple projectors running at once.[3]

Hirsh's many talents and interests led him to build his own optical printer, as well as recording equipment and a studio for documenting jazz concerts. He also gained repute as a gourmet cook. He also produced some 15 documentaries for American television.[3]

Hirsh died of a heart attack in 1961.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Hy Hirsh had one child, Diane, with Mae Agronowsky in 1934. The family lived together for two years before Hirsh left, finding traditional family life too confining. In 1939 he married Marie Gattman, a dancer and actress with whom he shared an interest in left-wing politics as well as his bohemian lifestyle. The couple lived in Los Angeles for a short time before moving to San Francisco’s Haight Street.[1]

Photography style[edit]

Hirsh's early photographs were influenced by California photography movement Group f/64, who had first exhibited in 1932 at the de Young Museum where Hirsh later worked. In 1932. Hirsh’s photo work from that period used sharply focused black and white renderings and little manipulation in their process. Hirsh was then influenced by the social documentary of the Farm Security Administration photographers who recorded the impact of the Great Depression on displaced workers and their families. Hirsh followed suit, exploring social issues through visages of vacant lots, rusted machinery, and other images of urban decay. Recognition for these photographs led to seven exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1935-55. A 1936 group show entitled "Seven Photographers" at L.A.'s Stanley Rose Gallery put him alongside the leading figures of West Coast photography, including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Brett Weston. Hirsh also appeared in the publication U.S. Camera in 1936, 1937 and 1939.[1]

In 1943 San Francisco Museum of Art featured Hirsh in a solo exhibition. By now Hirsh had moved away from the straight-ahead aesthetic of Ansel Adams and Group f64, and his artistic photography took more cues from the world of experimental film. He made surrealist self-portraits by superimposing negatives of himself with broken sheets of glass. As a study for one of his films, he shot hundreds of color slides of old wall posters that were peeling, exposing layers of posters underneath, then layered these slides on top of one another to made prints.[1]

Film technique[edit]

Hirsh led a disorderly life, maintaining little interest in preserving or completing his own work. Every film screening was a happening with Hirsh as its cinematographic choreographer. He treated films as malleable objects by constantly editing and re-editing them, using live music instead of pre-recorded soundtracks. As a result, his filmography has been difficult to compile, and many of Hirsh's films have been lost or damaged. According to William Moritz, upon Hirsh's death in 1961 in Paris, the police found hashish in his apartment, and impounded all of Hirsh's property, including finished and unfinished films. When the police released the material three years later, many films and papers were missing.[4]

Hirsh's tendency to leave work unfinished was often the result of moving ahead toward something new. For his first film, 1951's Divertissement Rococo (1951), he employed an oscilloscope to create his animation.[8] In Come Closer (1952), he dipped into the then-current fad of 3-D film by layering multi-colored rotating three-dimensional objects, intended to be viewed with 3-D glasses.

In Gyromorphosis (1956), 7 min, Hy Hirsh strives to display the kinetic qualities of the New Babylon structures of Constant Nieuwenhuys.

For Chasse de touches ("The Chase of Brushstrokes", 1957), Hirsh ran his fingers through layers of colored oils, and in 1958's Autumn Spectrum (1958), used the movement of water and light to create special effects. From 1958 to 59 he filmed a montage of peeling walls and pieces of old posters for Defense d'Afficher ("Post No Bills"). In 1960, he scratched animated images into live-action stock footage for his last film Scratch Pad.[4]

The opening credits of Walerian Borowczyk's short stop-motion film Renaissance (1963) include the caption "en hommage á Hy Hirsh" ("in tribute to Hy Hirsh").

Selected filmography[edit]

Solo works[edit]

  • Divertissement Rococo, 1951
  • Come Closer, 1952
  • Eneri, 1953
  • Gyromorphosis, 1956
  • Autumn Spectrum, 1957
  • Défense d'afficher ("Post No Bills"), 1958
  • Double Jam, 1958
  • Chasse des Touches ("The Chase of the Brushstrokes"), 1959
  • Scratch Pad, 1960
  • Décollages recollés, 1960
  • La Couleur de la forme, 1961
  • Etude Anatomique du Photographe, 1961
  • Recherche, 1961



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Reed, Dennis (2008). Hy Hirsh: Color Photographs. Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc. 
  2. ^ Thoben, Jan. "Technical Sound-Image Transformations". See This Sound Compendium. Ludwig Boltzmann Istitut. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c Moritz, Dr. William. "Hy Hirsh Biography". L'art du Mouvement 1919-1996. The iota Center. Retrieved 31 July 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Hy Hirsch [sic] (1911-1960)". Film & Video. UbuWeb. Retrieved 31 July 2013. 
  5. ^ Camper, Fred. "Hy Hirsh and the 50s: Jazz and Abstraction in Beat Era Film". The Chicago Reader. Retrieved 31 July 2013. 
  6. ^ Moritz, William. Gerald O'Grady and Bruce Posner, ed. Articulated Light: The Emergence of Abstract Film in America. Cambridge: Harvard Film Archive. p. 12. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  7. ^ "Gyromorphosis". Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980. Los Angeles Film Forum. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  8. ^ Zinman, Gregory. "Hy Hirsh". Handmade Cinema. Retrieved 31 July 2013. 

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