Yul Brynner: Photographs and Book About His Life

A new book and exhibition, Yul Brynner: A Photographic Journey, paints an intimate portrait of the late actor. In an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Victoria Brynner recalls life with her father—on and off the stage.

Yul Brynner

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s my father revived The King And I on Broadway. During this time, I spent many hours backstage with him. His process was like a ritual—arriving at the theater early, having dinner, watching sports while doing his make up—slowly and methodically preparing to embody The King. I loved going from his dressing room to the audience to watch my favorite scenes. I could not resist the last scene of the play: He lay there channeling this dying man surrounded by women who were finally done fighting with him and whose hearts were broken by his looming death. The curtains closed and I, like all the members of the audience, sat there with a lump in my throat. My father did not want the audience leaving with such a sad feeling so he orchestrated a curtain call of gradual, joyful clapping. After the whole cast had bowed, he came out looking rather serious…then smiled…and then, borrowing an old toreador trick, flung his arms up in the air and roared with laughter. The audience joined in with cheers and howls of delight, releasing all their sadness. I beamed with pride and joy. He was still there—he was vibrant and I was lucky enough to go backstage and end the evening with him.

Many people said he was always the King, and yes, he was regal and grand and authoritative. But he was also kind and generous and attentive. He was not a character. He was a real man. His pictures are the true testament to the private side of his personality; his subjects either oblivious of his presence or so comfortable knowing that nothing of their being would ever be betrayed, knowing that his interpretation of them would be one of beauty.

I am often asked how it was to have Yul Brynner as my dad, which is by far the hardest question to answer. He was just my dad.

He was loving, funny, and charismatic and had this grand sense of the moment. I spent the first years of my life travelling to sets everywhere from Spain to Los Angeles to Italy, while in between films living in Switzerland in a house by the lake. We sailed, played, gardened, jumped on our trampoline, had dogs and birds and monkeys and ponies. In later years we would go for long rides in the Swiss countryside. “Dad, let’s get lost! Turn right and left and left again.” We would giggle endlessly when ending up at a dead end street in the middle of vineyards.

As I grew up, my parents had divorced and our time together was more concentrated. Each visit would be marked by a photo session recording my growth, recording our time together, until one summer in Normandy when I brought him the first pictures I had taken. One single roll of film taken with my mother’s camera, 36 images of my world: the neighbor’s dog, the sunrise over Lake Geneva. He kindly marveled about my interest and my sense of composition. To encourage my budding talent, he gave me a camera for Christmas and so the sharing of our common passion began. From then on our visits were not only marked by the traditional portrait session, but also by hours of looking at photography books by his great friend, Ernest Haas, and masters such as Kertész, Lartigue, and Cartier Bresson.

Our life was marked by goodbyes and planning our next visit. What remained as a constant reminder of the time spent together were the pictures. Strangely, I never thought of photographing him—only once I shot a Polaroid of him hiding behind a camera shooting me.

Photography was the one topic that was totally private, just ours. After his death it was generous of Kathy, his last wife, to give me all his work, my little treasure. It was 1985 and my father had died in October. I drove from Normandy to Paris with a large trunk filled with negatives and slides, not really knowing what this would all eventually mean to me. It means the world to me now. It is my link to the past and a constant reminder of who my father really was.

In all his images his subjects are either seemingly unaware of his presence or glowing in it. His curiosity covered such a broad number of subjects from animals to landscapes to sets, directors, extras, refugees, and friends, views from windows and planes and cars. A constant observation of the world around him, often times from a hidden position, almost as if when shooting he took a break from being watched. He methodically recorded his private and public lives.

Somehow this work has had its own momentum and I am merely its facilitator. A few years back I had the chance of working with Karl Lagerfeld. He reminded me we had known each other since I was 8 years old. For the privileged few days we spent together as I produced a Chanel shoot for him, we spoke endlessly of the ‘50s, of my mother, of my stepmother Jacqueline, and of my sisters, Mia and Melody. He, by far, has the best memory of anyone I have ever met. He asked what had happened to my father’s pictures after the first book, Yul Brynner Photographer was published in 1992. What happened was life, a lot of work, a marriage, two kids, and more work. “Let’s do another book. I love these pictures.” This was five years ago. Like the best of partners and the best of old friends, he stuck by this idea.

Archiving and making sense of 8,000 images was no easy task, and then, by some magic, I met Nicolas Pages, a fellow Swiss who had just moved to Los Angeles after working with Nan Goldin for 10 years. An author, he wanted a side job to support his writing so we agreed on a three-month commitment. A year and half later, he has not only archived all the images, but has also designed the book, and most importantly has allowed this project to come to life.

The amount of images that needed to be shared were so numerous that we chose to break them down chronologically by theme in different volumes: Lifestyle, Life on Set, 1956, and—it only seemed fitting to finish with a look at the man himself— Man of Style. Even a photographic book needs words. I am here to attest that the saying, “Ask and you shall receive,” came true for me on this project. I was blessed by the kindness of Bruce Weber, who has always loved this work and took time out of his busy schedule to pen his wonderful forward for Lifestyle. When asked, Ingrid Sischy immediately said yes. And who better to talk of photography and movies in Life on Set than Martin Scorsese? He has honored me by bringing his filmmaker and film historian point of view to the pages of 1956. And finally my dear friend, Stefano Tonchi, who knows best about style and gave his point of view in Man of Style.

I feel complete, I feel blessed, I hope you all dive in and spend a great time discovering this treasure.

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Born daughter to famed actor Yul Brynner and Chilean beauty Doris Kleiner, Victoria Brynner immediately entered into the glamorous world of film, fashion, and photography. Today, Brynner works with the world’s top fashion and commercial photographers, famous public figures, and coveted brands to create iconic images and campaigns that give new resonance to modern luxury. Victoria’s passion for photography and fashion effectively blurs the boundaries between advertising, celebrity, and production. Brynner’s impressive client list includes Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Christian Dior, Hermés, Prada, Balenciaga, Coty USA, Lancôme, Lanvin, LVMH, and Sephora.