Lotte Jacobi's Historical Portraiture Page 2

Aesthetic Differences
Beginning in August, 1932, Jacobi spent six months traveling throughout the Soviet Union and Central Asia. This excursion allowed her to do some travel photography and to document the evolving Communist Republic. After Margaret Bourke-White, Jacobi was the only female photographer ever to receive permission to photograph the Soviet Union. Some of her images are credited to pseudonyms.

Jacobi returned to Berlin to find that the political climate was quickly changing. The transfer of power to the Nazi party and her Jewish heritage made life dangerous and work difficult to find, so she fled to America in 1935. Many of her images were destroyed in World War II after she left Berlin. Jacobi moved to New York City, where she opened a photography studio. To begin with, she had a difficult time. She did some commercial photography, but her style wasn't always compatible with U.S. magazines.

Berenice Abbott, an American photographer, befriended Jacobi and helped her out. There was a small artists' community in New York, and they all banded together. "Photography wasn't really accepted as a fine-art form until later on," comments Sundstrom.

Robert Frost.

Photographer Alfred Stieglitz, photographed by Jacobi in 1938. A long-time admirer, she had studied Stieglitz' work while attending classes at a university in Munich.

From the late 1930s through the '50s, Jacobi photographed such influential people as J.D. Salinger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Erich Reiss (whom she eventually married), Alfred Stieglitz, and Marc Chagall. She shot the portrait of Chagall and his daughter Ida at a time when she experienced artistic differences after moving to New York. After seeing her images, Chagall told Jacobi that he realized that photography could indeed be a fine art form, as opposed to simple snapshots. For Jacobi, this was a rewarding experience and renewed her confidence in how she viewed herself and her work.

As always, notes Sundstrom, "Jacobi allowed the person to be who he or she was." In her 1938 "Portrait of Albert Einstein," the revered physicist is pictured in his home and oblivious to the camera, wearing a leather jacket. She managed to capture the human--not the genius--on film. Although Life magazine had commissioned this assignment, they considered her photos too "casual" for publication. "She was a very headstrong person and didn't want to change her style to suit a magazine," Sundstrom points out.

Albert Einstein: The man behind the genius, 1938.

Exploring the Medium
She demonstrated that she could do photography with style and explore the artistic aspects of the medium. Such was the case with her abstract expressionism that incorporated photo materials (but no camera), known as "Photogenics." Jacobi began creating these images in the late '40s at the suggestion of a friend and fellow artist, Leo Katz (in addition to a new way to express art, photogenics took her mind off her husband dying). In the darkroom, she used a flashlight diffused by clear plastic or another sheer material to "paint" light directly onto photographic paper. Each image was unique, such as "Sunset," which is included on these pages.

Jacobi's "Portrait of Leo Katz" was taken in 1938. In this image, she utilized dramatic lighting and the cigarette as a prop, which she rarely did, according to Sundstrom. "She didn't like to include anything in her photos that detracted from the subject."

J.D. Salinger, 1951.

From the City to the Countryside
In 1955, Jacobi left New York for the countryside in Deering, New Hampshire. Her mother, husband, and a close friend had died within the span of a few years in the early '50s. It was in New Hampshire that she began capturing closeups and abstractions outdoors--"the unseen world of nature." Sundstrom comments, "Jacobi never pigeon-holed herself. She did what she wanted and didn't care what the critical press said. She basically made her money at portrait photography, but she could do so much more."

In New England, she soon became involved with the local art community. She became friends with writers Helen and Scott Nearing, May Sarton, and the poet Robert Frost, all of whom she photographed. Initially, she was given about 15 minutes to take Frost's picture, says Sundstrom, "but then they began talking about gardening, and spent the afternoon drinking ginger beer." As usual, she brought out the best in her subjects, even in Frost, who was considered "kind of a curmudgeon."

"Sunset," one of Jacobi's cameraless images that were called "Photogenics."

An Artist Remembered
Jacobi remained active throughout the late '60s and '70s. Sundstrom says he's interviewed people who have had wonderful stories about her. She always worked hard to promote photography as fine art, and "campaigned to have photography represented in the annual New Hampshire Art Association exhibition." She was also a delegate at the 1976 Democratic convention for Jimmy Carter. She has also won many awards for her artistic achievements. In 1980, the New Hampshire Governor's office (through the State Council on the Arts) established The Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Award, which honors an artist who has made a significant contribution to his/her art form and to the arts community, according to Sundstrom.

She died in 1990, but collections of Jacobi's work continue to be shown regularly in Germany and the U.S. As Sundstrom says, "Her collection of images are an important contribution to photography and the history of art."


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