The story of a forgotten Hungarian animal photographer
Nowadays animal photography is very trendy. Not only professional photographers take photos of magnificent animals in the wild but also regular people, mostly about their adorable pets, and post it on several social media sites. Back in the day, there were no social media sites and Internet. Photographers had to publish a photo album to make their photographs known. This is what Ylla (born as Kamilla Koffler) did, and she became one of the most famous Hungarian animal photographers.
Ylla was born on 16th August 1911 in Vienna. Not much is known about her childhood and her family’s descent. His father was a businessman who travelled a lot and did not have a lot of time to be with his family. Her mother was a simple Jewish woman. Her parents divorced before World War I broke out and Ylla stayed with her mother. During the war, the little girl and her mother needed to escape from Vienna and travelled across Europe to avoid the war’s terror. They slept at friends’ and family members’ homes. Ylla accounted for this part of her life:
“My mother sewed her jewelleries into her coat, hid some money in my shoes, and we always slept on flour bags.”
After the war ended, her mother moved to Belgrade, where she worked as a designer. Ylla was sent to a German Boarding School in Budapest. Her father paid the school’s tuition fee. She stayed and learned at that school until 1926. After finishing this school, she followed her mother to Belgrade and became a student at the Academy of Fine Arts where she learned statuary. This was the period where her love for animals first became visible as she always tried to take stray dogs from the street home, but her mother forbid it. During her studies, she also got her first job. It was the designing of reliefs on the boxes of a movie theatre. She used animals as decorative motives. She also created her artist alias: Ylla.
In 1931 she moved to Paris to continue her studies and started to work at a photo studio to earn enough money to pay for her tuition. At first, she did not like it, but slowly she started to become friends with the camera.
One day, she travelled with her friends to Normandia, and they also took their dogs for a walk. While she was walking with the dogs she was also taking some photographs of them which she showed to her mentor at the photo studio. Her mentor was astonished about how precise, magnificent and unaffected her photographs are. In 1933 Ylla’s first pictures were exhibited at a photo exhibition. This was the point where her carrier started as a professional photographer.
In 1937 she published smaller photo albums about dogs and cats, and in 1938 her first book entitled as Petits et Grands came out. In Paris, she met several emigrated Hungarian photo artists like Nora Dumas, Eva Boros, André Kertész, Mihály Károlyi, and Ernő Goldfinger. Some biographies say that she also met Robert Capa but there is no evidence for that.
During World War II she emigrated to the United States and arrived in New York on 13th June 1941. She worked all the time and published several magnificent photographs. She did many peculiar things in New York City, e.g. she took a lion cub up to her flat to take photos. In another case, she was bitten by a panda at the zoo while she was trying to take pictures of it.
In 1951 she travelled to Africa. This was the journey which inspired her book Animals in Africa. During her journey, she visited several national parks and took pictures of lions, elephants, giraffes, and monkeys. She wanted to leave photo studios forever and continue to take pictures of animals in their natural habitat.
In 1955 she was invited to India to take pictures of the Dasra Festival and the northern region of India. On 28th March 1955, she was taking photographs of a wagon racing competition. Before the competition, she decided that she would take pictures from a land rover’s spare wheel while sitting on it. She was excited and did not want to miss a moment, and wanted to see the competition from a racer’s view. She was reckless and refused to take pictures from the land rover’s seat. While she was taking pictures, the land rover accidentally smashed into something and Ylla fell off from the spare wheel and did not stand up anymore. She was taken to hospital, where she died on 30th March 1955. A memorial statue in India’s Moti Mahal Palace commemorates Hungary’s most famous animal photographer of all time.
“I do not have a home. My home is where I currently am. Luckily, animals do not ask me which nation I belong to.”
Featured image: Pryor Dodge (www.pryordodge.com)