One day in the late 1960s Eva Sereny took a plane to London from her home in Rome, walked into the foyer of The Times’ building in Printing House Square and said to the uniformed commissionaire, “I’ve got some photos. Who do I go to?”
She had no appointment and was a young mother of two who had never had a photograph published. Yet Norman Hall, the paper’s picture editor, agreed to see her. She showed him some images she had taken of young athletes training in an Italian sports center and three days later, they appeared in The Times under the headline “Preparing for the Olympics”. It was the start of a career that took her around the world and put her work on the cover of countless magazines.
Her speciality became taking still photographs on film sets to publicize the movies being made, and she shot many of the greatest stars of the day including Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton and Mia Farrow. She also captured celebrated directors as they went about their work, such as Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut.
Sereny began with Mike Nichols’ 1970 film Catch-22 and recalled how nervous she was to show him her photos. “I studied his face and didn’t notice a change of expression until, slowly, a broad smile surfaced. All was well. I was asked to stay on as a paid special photographer.” She followed by taking photos on the set of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), which were featured in The Sunday Times Magazine. Another early highlight was a photograph of Marlon Brando lighting the cigarette of the director Bernardo Bertolucci on the set of Last Tango in Paris, but she had to work hard to get it.
“I don’t like photographers,” Brando had snarled at her, saying he did not want any pictures. She secured his reluctant agreement by offering him approval of the shots. In the end she earned his trust so thoroughly that he waived his veto and told her, “Don’t worry, Eva. You make the choice.”
Her combination of photographic skills, professional pride and personal modesty enabled her to get even the most prickly subjects to relax. “There is a human connection, through my lens, to my subject,” she said. “The way I like to approach my job is to catch images of the off-moments, when the cameras are not rolling.”
A typical example was her shot of Fellini putting make-up on Donald Sutherland during the filming of Casanova. Employed on the first three Indiana Jones movies, shot on location variously in Tunisia, Sri Lanka and Spain, she captured Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford sitting together and looking exhausted as they took a break from filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. “It’s a moment of quiet familiarity snatched between takes, where the subjects appear more like best friends hanging out in a university dorm than megawatt stars working on a seminal movie,” noted Carrie Kania, director of photography at Iconic Images, who worked closely with Sereny on a book of her work, Through Her Lens (2018).
Her easy rapport with her subjects persuaded Paul Newman to pose for her barefoot at his Connecticut home, clutching two beers and dressed in a “Get Really Stoned” T-shirt. Jacqueline Bisset, whom she photographed on the set of Truffaut’s Day for Night, became a lifelong friend and contributed a foreword for Sereny’s book, writing that her “photographs capture the deeper soul”. Charlotte Rampling, whom she met on the set of the 1974 film The Night Porter, wrote a poem about her.
Occasionally Sereny had to deal with a tantrum. When she first tried to photograph Raquel Welch on the set of The Last of Sheila (1973), the actress shouted at her, “Who the hell are you?”
Herbert Ross, the film’s director, explained that Sereny had his permission to be on set. “I don’t want her here. I do not want her here!” Welch yelled. Several years later Sereny found herself working with Welch again on a beauty and fitness video. “I was worried that she would remember me,” Sereny recalled. “But she didn’t and I never told her — and we got along like a house on fire.”
Of all the shots she took, her personal favorite was a photograph of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of the 1972 film The Assassination of Trotsky. Burton was playing the Russian revolutionary and Taylor showed up on set to see her husband for what turned out to be a tempestuous confrontation. “There was no time to think but I managed to catch her and Burton sharing this moment,” she recalled. “It was obvious something was going on.”
In the end she earned Brando’s trust so thoroughly that he waived his veto and told her, “Don’t worry, Eva. You make the choice.”
Their meeting was intense enough that they failed to notice Sereny taking the shot from below. “If it had been a close-up of their faces, it would have just been two people looking not very nicely at each other. The body language brings it all together,” she said. The couple divorced two years later.
Sereny is survived by her husband, Frank Charnock, whom she met in 2009. She is also survived by her sons, Riccardo Delleani and Alessandro Delleani, who live in Rome. Her first husband, Vincio Delleani, an Italian engineer, died in 2007 after they had been married for 50 years.
Eva Sereny was born in Switzerland in 1935, the only child of Hungarian parents, and raised from the age of five in England. Her father was in Britain on a business trip when the Second World War broke out and, unable to return to Switzerland, he sent for Eva and her mother. At 20 she decamped to Italy in search of “la dolce vita” and found it when she married Delleani.
She took up photography almost by chance after her husband had a car accident, and recalled “sitting beside him in the hospital thinking, I could have been widowed with two small sons and no income. I knew then that I had to do something. I had an artistic eye but couldn’t draw and suddenly, photography came to my mind.”
Sereny started “fiddling about” with her husband’s Rolleiflex camera and when he had recovered he rigged up a darkroom for her in the basement of their home in Rome. A friend who was head of the Italian Olympics committee asked her to document the activities in some new sports centers he was setting up. The photographs became the portfolio she took to show The Times.
Having observed so many great cinematographers, she turned to directing herself and her debut film, The Dress, starring Michael Palin, won her a Bafta for best short film in 1985.
When photographing on film sets she had to be as unobtrusive as possible and so worked without an assistant, carrying four cameras, two for black-and-white and two for color. Three were slung round her neck and the fourth held in her hand. “I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “I really don’t.”
Eva Sereny, photographer and director, was born on May 19, 1935. She died of complications after a stroke on May 25, 2021, aged 86