In 1956 the photographer Frank Horvat moved to Paris. He was 28 and since the Italian magazine, ‘Epoca’ had published his first photo essay in 1951 he had already had his work featured in Paris Match, Life magazine and Picture Post. Born in Abbazia, which was then part of Italy but is now Croatia, at the age of fifteen had swapped a stamp collection for a 35mm camera and started his career as a photographer.
Not long after Horvat had settled in the French capital he was commissioned by a New York agency to photograph a ‘sexy’ story about the infamous Paris nightlife. The photographer, initially to no avail, wandered around Place Pigalle the district between 9th and 18th arrondissements famous for it’s sex shops and adult theatres including the famous Moulin Rouge but also where Henri Toulouse-Lautrec once had his studio and where artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Andre Breton had once lived.
Horvat, unsurprisingly, was refused entry to everywhere he tried. At about two in the morning, however, he came across Le Sphinx. It was a run-down little strip club named after the fabled Parisian brothel where the photographer Brassai and Man Ray had photographed in the 1930s, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart had been visitors and where Marlene Dietrich used for assignations with one of her lovers, the French actress Madeleine Solonge.
After giving the doorman of the rather run-down Le Sphinx a rather large tip of 5000 francs Horvat was allowed in. After around fifteen minutes the girls began to object to the photographer’s presence without further payment and he was asked to leave. Horvat had been fast, however, and already had already taken five rolls of film.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2014 Horvat talked about the most well-known of the pictures taken that night and once used in Vogue magazine as a double-paged spread:
I don’t know if the man is a businessman or a tourist, but the main thing is that he’s alone and drinking champagne. It doesn’t look like he’s having a great time, but he makes the shot. The terrible painting behind adds to the atmosphere – it was so of its time. As the stripper walked past under the lights, her naked body was very over-exposed: she looks like a marble sculpture. A lot of things came together in this shot. I didn’t make it, really – it was given to me. I could never take it again, even if someone paid me a million pounds to try.
Photographs used with kind permission of Frank Horvat.