Friday, June 18, 2010


Zaida Yusuf (1869-1933) was a leader in the art of photographic portraiture in turn-of-the-century New York. She operated – for ten years beginning in 1897 – arguably the most fashionable portrait studio on Fifth Avenue, while at the same time contributing work to numerous publications and the period’s most important photography exhibitions. As a testament to her renown, she served as a spokesperson for the Eastman Kodak Company and was regularly profiled in newspapers and magazines. Yet the memory of her achievement as a photographer has largely vanished.
She was born Esther Zeghdda Youseph Nathan in London, England November 21, 1869, the eldest daughter of a German-born mother, Anna Kind Youseph Nathan, from Berlin; and an Algerian father, Mustapha Moussa Youseph Nathan. By 1881, Anna Yusuf, now separated from her husband, and her four daughters Zaida (aged 11), Heidi , Leila and Pearl , were living in Ramsgate, where Anna worked as a governess. At some stage in the late 1880s, Anna Yusuf emigrated to the United States, where by 1891, she had established a milliner's shop on Washington Street in Boston.
In 1895, Zaida Yusuf followed in her mother's footsteps and emigrated to the United States, where she worked as a milliner at 251 Fifth Avenue, New York. She continued this for some time after becoming a photographer, writing occasional articles for Harpers Bazaar and the Ladies Home Journal on millinery.
In 1896 Zaida began to be known as a photographer. In April 1896, two of her pictures were reproduced in The Cosmopolitan Magazine, and another study was exhibited in London as part of an exhibition put on by The Linked Ring. She travelled to Europe later that year, where she met with George Davison, one of the co-founders of The Linked Ring, who encouraged her to continue her photography.....
In the spring of 1897, Zaida Yusuf opened her portrait photography studio at 124 Fifth Avenue, New York. On November 7, 1897, the New York Daily Tribune ran an article on Zaida Yusuf's studio and her work creating advertising posters, which was followed by another profile in Frank Leslie's Weekly on December 30. Through 1898, she became increasingly visible as a photographer, with ten of her works in the National Academy of Design-hosted 67th Annual Fair of the American Institute, where her portrait of actress Virginia Earle won her third place in the Portraits and Groups class. During November 1898, Zaida and Frances Benjamin Johnston held a two-woman show of their work at the Camera Club of New York.

Portrait of Miss Yusuf
Platinum print, 1898
National Museum of American History
Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution

Frank Goodyear holds a self-portrait
Photo by Owen Macdonald
From Smithsonian Institution

She also is one of the last remaining puzzles the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's assistant curator of photographs still hopes to solve from the career of Zaida Yusuf. This accomplished yet little-known photographer focused her lens on what Goodyear calls "a who's who of modern New York"—and one unknown beauty wearing a lilac corsage—between 1897 and 1906.
Until recently, the real mystery was Yusuf herself. At the age of 26, the British-born photographer opened a Fifth Avenue studio in New York City that quickly began attracting celebrities of the day, including President Theodore Roosevelt, novelist Edith Wharton, painter William Merritt Chase and actress Julia Marlowe. "You had the great theater stars, the great artists, the great writers, the great politicians" flocking to Ben-Yusuf's studio to be immortalized in richly toned platinum prints, Goodyear says.
(Smithsonian Institution)
In his blog post, Goodyear discusses Zaida's 1898 self-portrait that hangs in the exhibition:
"One of the signature works in the new exhibition “Zaida Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer” is an 1898 self-portrait. Although Zaida was principally a commercial photographer who attracted to her studio the leading cultural and political figures of the day, the subject she photographed most often was herself. During her career, she created no less than ten self-portraits, each different from the other in terms of dress, pose, and mood.
Turning the camera on herself provided an opportunity to experiment with both the art of portraiture and her own feminine persona. These self-portraits gave the British-born photographer—a young single woman recently settled in New York City—a much-needed identity, one that would lessen her sense of displacement and attract attention to her art.
Rendered in a narrow vertical format, this image is striking for the costume Zaida Yusuf wears and the pose she adopts. Both mark her as a bohemian woman. Unlike more conventional dresses of the period, Zaida’s long gown is strikingly form-fitting. Her dark coat and hat are equally modern in fashion, and the manner in which she arranges her long necklace and holds her fur muff at her side suggests a desire to push forward—if not to break free from—stylistic traditions. This likeness makes clear how conscious Zaida Yusuf was of her public appearance and how deliberate she was in casting herself among those women who looked to transgress traditional boundaries of femininity."
Reviewers greeted her photographs with enthusiasm. In Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Notes, critic William Murray singled out this self-portrait for praise. It was Zaida Yusuf, though, as much as the portrait itself that prompted Murray to comment that the subject “appears before us scintillating with all the qualities of mind and person represented by the much abused French word—chic.”
(face2face, a blog from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
In 1899, Zaida met with F. Holland Day in Boston, and was photographed by him. She relocated her studio to 578 Fifth Avenue, and exhibited in a number of exhibitions, including the second Philadelphia Photographic Salon. She was also profiled in a number of publications, including an article on female photographers in The American Amateur Photographer, and a long piece in The Photographic Times in which Sadakichi Hartmann described her as an "interesting exponent of portrait photography".

“Portrait of Miss S,” circa 1899
National Museum of American History
Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution

As a young woman with aspirations of artistic fame and professional success, Zaida Yusuf found that creating self-portraits provided an opportunity to experiment with both the art of portraiture and her own feminine persona. Rendered in a narrow vertical format, this early self-portrait (above) is striking for the costume she wears and the pose she adopts. Few photographers during this period – male or female – devoted such energy to their self-representation. Such images also gave the newly arrived Zaida Yusuf a much-needed identity—one that would lesson her sense of displacement and would attract attention to her art. Zaida Yusuf was pleased with this self-portrait, for it became the likeness of her that was most often reproduced and exhibited during her career.
A radical departure from tradition in any line of work usually makes the success of a new venture long delayed and difficult. This is particularly true of photographic portraiture, in which, until quite recently, a time-honored custom demanded a set arrangement of pose and lighting in order to fulfill the generally accepted idea of a good picture.
Unhampered by conventional methods, while strongly influenced by her artistic ideals, Zaida Yusuf entered the field of professional photography almost as a novice, but soon won wide recognition by her daring and original work. Devoting herself almost wholly to portraiture, Zaida Yusuf imbues all her studies with a touch of the picturesque, and at her best combines a rich effect of light with sweeping lines of drapery and distinction of pose.
Vivid and striking in treatment, Zaida's portraits are always characteristic, not only of her sitters, but also of her own intense personality.
(Clio Visualizing History)

The Odor of Pomegranates
Platinum print, 1899
Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress

The Odor of Pomegranates is a departure from the professional photography that typically occupied Zaida’s attention. More than simply a portrait, the image represents Zaida"s effort to use photography to explore a larger theme: in this case, the seductiveness and potential danger of something desirous. The pomegranate provides the key to unlocking the work’s symbolism. An odorless fruit, the pomegranate figures prominently in the mythological story of Persephone, whose act of eating one given to her by Hades bound her for part of the year in the underworld over which Hades reigned. Zaida depicts her Persephone-like figure contemplating the fruit before her. Its “odor” relates not to its smell, but rather the tantalizing expectation that precedes the act of consuming it. Zaida Yusuf was proud of this image and exhibited it on repeated occasions.

Major Gen. Leonard Wood
The governor general of Cuba
Photographic print 1900
Platinum print
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This distinguished portrait of Major General Leonard Wood was taken while he was the Military Governor of Cuba between 1898 and 1902. Leonard Wood (1860-1927) graduated from Harvard Medical School and joined the Army Medical Department in 1885. While serving as an attending surgeon in Washington, D.C., he met Theodore Roosevelt. During the 1898 war with Spain, they became prominent as the commanders of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry regiment, popularly known as the Rough Riders. Wood's later appointments included Army Chief of Staff and Governor General of the Philippines. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
(Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)
Platinum print, c. 1900
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Elbert Hubbard purchased the struggling Roycroft Printing Shop in East Aurora, New York, in 1895 and built it into one of the centers of the arts and crafts movement in America. Modeling his enterprise after William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in England, he attracted craftsmen by paying them well and leaving them alone to pursue their ideas. Workers were never admonished for wasting money. The Fra, as Hubbard was called by his followers, saw wasting time as the greater sin. Under his direction, the Roycroft Press became a leader in the publication of small designer books and specialty magazines. Hubbard was also an influential author, and his essays about art and labor made him a national celebrity. Zaida Yusuf photographed him in New York at the outset of a lecture tour being orchestrated by James Burton Pond.
(Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Alberto Santos Dumont (1873-1932)
Platinum print, 1902
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mankind’s fascination with flight – though centuries old – was especially great at the turn of the century. Although Orville and Wilbur Wright would make history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903, it was Paris, France, where the greatest number of aviation pioneers resided during this period. Prominent among this group was Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian who is credited as the first to achieve heavier-than-air flight before a large public audience. Santos-Dumont traveled across the Atlantic in 1902 to encourage the development and funding of an aviation competition at the upcoming Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. During his two weeks in the United States, he visited with a host of politicians, scientists, and potential investors, including President Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Smithsonian secretary Samuel Langley, whose own experiments with flight had likewise become an obsession. It was during this trip that he visited Zaida’s studio.
(Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Ekai Kawaguchi (1866-1945)
Platinum print, 1903
Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund
The Alice Newton Osborn Fund
Funds contributed by the Judith Rothschild Foundation
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ekai Kawaguchi (1866–1945)
Illustration in "Metropolitan Magazine",Jan. 1904
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Zaida’s photography was not limited to subjects she captured in her New York studio. When she traveled to Japan and China in 1903, she brought three cameras. As in New York, photography permitted her access to individuals of note, and despite being in a foreign land, she was not reluctant to pursue new subjects. Most significantly, Zaida created this portrait of the famous Buddhist scholar Ekai Kawaguchi. Few individuals were as celebrated in Japan as Kawaguchi in the summer of 1903. In May, he arrived back in Kobe after six years abroad, during which time he became the first Japanese to enter Nepal and Tibet, both then closed to outsiders. His safe return and the story of his journey prompted celebrations throughout Japan. Zaida's portrait conveys a sense of respect that she surely felt in meeting and photographing him.
(Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
This tour formed the basis for a series of four illustrated articles, "Japan Through My Camera", published in the Saturday Evening Post from April 23 1904. In February 1905, her essay on Kyoto appeared in Booklovers Magazine and Leslie's Monthly Magazine published an illustrated article on"Women in Japan". She also wrote about Japanese architecture and lectured on the subject, with some of her photographs illustrating a January 1906 article by Katharine Budd in Architectural Record, for which she submitted an article, "The Period of Daikan", which appeared the next month. In 1906 she published three photographs from a visit to Capri in the September issue of Photo Era, and in 1908, wrote three essays on life in England for the Saturday Evening Post. She returned to New York in November 1908, but was back in London the following year. The London phone book for 1911 listed her as a photographer in Chelsea. In 1912, Sadakichi Hartmann wrote that Zaida had given up photography, and was living in the South Sea Islands.
On September 15, following the outbreak of World War I and the German invasion of France, Zaida Yusuf returned to New York from Paris, where she had been living at the time. She applied for naturalization in 1919, describing herself as a photographer, and taking ten years off her age. She continued to travel, visiting Cuba in 1920 and Jamaica in 1921.
Zaida Yusuf took a post with the Reed Fashion Service in New York City in 1924, and lectured at local department stores on fashion related subjects. In 1926, she was appointed style director for the Retail Millinery Association of New York, an organisation for which she later became director.
By 1930, census records showed that Zaida had married a textile designer, Frederick J. Norris. She died three years later on September 27 in the Methodist Episcopal Hospital in Brooklyn.

No comments: