Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Remembering Lotte Jacobi


Jacobi c. 1946
She got off the ship in New York harbor in 1935 with her Leica and a few names, not many.  Her circle in Berlin had started to fragment, the artists, dancers and actors she so loved to photograph that had been her life, and it was time to leave.  She also left behind some 10,000 negatives, now lost, and a business that had been in her family for four generations: her great-grandfather Samuel had learned the art directly from Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1840.

Her sister Ruth, also a photographer, had preceded her to NY by a few years, spending time documenting Manhattan’s Lower East Side and doing portraits while Lotte was off photographing Jewish graves in Soviet Uzbekistan.  Reunited they set up a photo studio around 1938, perhaps near Times Square, perhaps not, and did portraits to pay the rent.  Lotte though was an uncompromising photographer and not every client liked her work.  Too close-up, too informal they said.  She was ahead of her time.  Years later this would become the style but not now.
Jacobi c. 1946

Jacobi c. 1946

Jacobi c. 1946

The close-knit émigré community became sustenance for Lotte.  She photographed Kurt Weill, Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall.  She began hanging out with artists; she met Leo Katz who would become her mentor, she met Berenice Abbott who persuaded her to take courses at the New School for Social Research, a bastion of intellectual refugees from Europe.  There she learned printmaking with Stanley Hayter who had founded Atelier 17 and had printed with Picasso and Kandinsky.  She shared studio space with other student artists under Hayter’s eye, names like Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, Miró. (Her etchings from 1947-48, like theirs, appear occasionally at auction).

Encouraged by Katz, she went back to the darkroom and began playing with light and shadows.  She could make them move and shift.  It reminded her of dancing as a young girl.  She tried candles and flashlights, and sometimes covered them with fabric.  For ten years she did this, very quietly, while the abstract expressionist movement in a big noisy way was exploding around her.  She saved the results to photo paper, eventually amassing a considerable body of work.  Katz gave them the name ‘photogenics’ and understood just what part these peaceful, amazing pictures could play in the evolution of photography as an art form, besides being really beautiful in themselves. 
Jacobi c. 1946

When I walk today through the corridors at AIPAD, the huge congress for dealers in photographic art held annually at the Park Avenue Armory, there are thousands of great photographs.  I move on, I’ve seen them.  Then, in the corner of someone’s booth, I’ll spot a small lovely thing mounted on soiled cardboard, projecting authority like nothing else around.  I stop in my tracks: a Jacobi.  I know this is why I’ve come and why I do what I do. 

Jacobi c. 1946

After 1951 she never made any more of them, although she lived another forty years.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading it. There is a lot of emotion there, both Lotte's and my own, and in a few words, as a sort of meditation, I wanted to capture that.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.