Saturday, July 3, 2010

THE TRAMP PHOTOGRAPHER




 James Abbe (1883-1973)
by Howard Coster
Half-plate film negative, 1933
Transferred from Central Office of Information, 1974
National Portrait Gallery, London


 
A native of nearby Newport News, Abbe made a name for himself photographing stars of the stage and cinema in New York, Paris, and London in the 1920s and '30s. He also traveled throughout Europe as an early photojournaflist recording the turbulent power struggles of the early 20th century. Many of his singular black-and-white images are portraits of famous celebrities that capture the "lure of the limelight." Rather than working in his studio, Abbe photographed actors ..... including Charlie Chaplin, Tyrone Power, Gloria Swanson (above), and Josephine Baker ..... in full costume on the stage. His unconventional technique set him apart from his contemporaries, and led him to effectively revolutionize the art of publicity stills. His silvery photographs capture the surreal quality of the makeup and lighting that is so unique to silent movies. While the stars used his sophisticated images for publicity purposes, Abbe also sold his photographs to popular magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, making him an early catalyst for media-induced celebrity.....
(CHRYSLER MUSEUM OF ART)
While his skill was undeniable, Abbe's achievement as creator of a genre of character studies of starlets is perhaps not as revolutionary as it might be painted. His early portraits have the posed stiffness of David or Corot, while his backstage images of the same period are merely uninspired photographic versions of Victorian paintings. With his portrait of Cecil B De Mille of 1922, however, Abbe does enter new territory. The great director sits in a 17th-century interior, a surreal vision in correspondent shoes, staring fixedly at an ivory statuette of a nude girl, as if his gaze alone might bring her to life. It is this ability to impart something of the essence of the sitter that marks out Abbe's better work from the gloss of the fan-club photograph
(Photography James Abbe National Portrait Gallery, London by Iain Gale, Friday, 5 January 1996 at THE INDEPENDENT)


 Gloria Swanson, 1921
From Wikimedia


 Dolly Sisters
From douban.com


 The Dolly Sisters, 1927
From douban.com


Dolly Sisters, Rosika & Yansci
From History of Art at all-art.org


Compare, for example, photographs of the Dolly Sisters (above), a famous Twenties cabaret act. Pictured in their risque Folies Bergere-style costumes, they smile directly at the camera with the shaky self-confidence of the 1920s sexual revolution. Caught off duty, however, as one lights a cigarette for the other, their winning smiles have been replaced by a look of knowing cynicism which hints at the sham behind their stage presence. At their best, such works by Abbe are uniquely candid commentaries on early tinseltown. For the most part, though, for all their intimacy, they are merely the idealised images demanded by the fans.
(Photography James Abbe National Portrait Gallery, London by Iain Gale, Friday, 5 January 1996 at THE INDEPENDENT)


The Kid, Hollywood, 1920
From History of Art at all-art.org


Fay Bainter
From History of Art at all-art.org


Theda Bara, 1920
From Wikimedia


That such visual hagiography did not satisfy Abbe's ambition became evident during the late 1920s. In 1927 he embarked on a new career in the emerging sphere of photojournalism with a visit to Moscow. Although initially it was the film industry that attracted Abbe's attention, he soon began to look at the real-life events of a rapidly changing world. In this guise he travelled to Cuba, Mexico and Germany, where he chronicled the rise of Nazism
The truth is, however, that, for all his enthusiasm, Abbe was not cut out to be a photojournalist; his style had been nurtured in an atmosphere of carefully controlled unreality. His photograph of Brownshirts in a Munich bierkeller, for example, has a curious similarity to an earlier image of a crew backstage on a Hollywood film set. In such parallels this show emphasises the folly of putting our faith in idols - whether in Hollywood or Nuremberg. Abbe deserves his place as one of the great myth-makers of the 20th century. Goebbels would have loved him.
(Photography James Abbe National Portrait Gallery, London by Iain Gale, Friday, 5 January 1996 at THE INDEPENDENT


Rudolph Valentino
From garbospeaks.com


Rudolph Valentino
From garbospeaks.com


Rudolph Valentino
From precodecinema.blogspot


Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova
New York, 1925
From History of Art at all-art.org
 

 Natacha Rambova
From History of Art at all-art.org

 
Although he was a contemporary of Alfred Eisenstaedt and Erich Salomon--and was just as smart and foolhardy--James Abbe is by no means as famous as his legendary colleagues. He published superb photo documentaries featuring Stalin's Moscow, the last years of the Weimar Republic and the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War. Obsessive and fearless, Abbe got close to the dictators of Europe--Hitler, Mussolini, Franco--and in 1932, he was the only American given permission to photograph Stalin. Eventually, photographing world leaders became his specialty. In pursuit of various interests, Abbe made contact with Russian film directors and artists such as Sergej Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Meyerhold, indulging his passion for film, theater, dance and, above all, the mysteries of whatever happened backstage. Many of his pictures--portraits of Rudolph Valentino (above), Mae West, Josephine Baker and Charlie Chaplin--have become icons of modern photography. Others, like his portrait of Thomas Mann, remained unknown until their recent discoveries.
(ARTBOOK)


Joseph Stalin
From douban.com
 

Joseph Stalin in the Kremlin, Moscow, 1932
From History of Art at all-art.org


James Abbe’s photograph of Joseph Stalin (above) comes from the biggest photo-journalistic scoop of his long career. In 1932, rumors were circulating that Stalin was seriously ill and having difficulties performing his duties. Abbe convinced the Soviet authorities that a photograph of a healthy Stalin was needed to prove to the world that he was still in control. In Stalin’s office at the Kremlin, Abbe made six negatives in one 25 minute session. The images were published in newspapers around the world. This view with the portrait of Karl Marx suspended on the wall over Stalin is the most powerful image from the session. It directly links the founder of Communism with the commanding visage of the current leader, creating a perfect symbol for the ongoing creation of the Soviet Empire.
(CHRYSLER MUSEUM OF ART)


John Barrymore
From History of Art at all-art.org

 
 Lillian & Dorothy Gish
From History of Art at all-art.org
 

Richard Barthelmess
From History of Art at all-art.org
 

James Abbe wrote, “Looking back over the past eighty-nine years, I’d probably react approximately the same way were I to live them over again. On the whole, I would say that I have made the most of most opportunities. Glaring exceptions would include failing to accept an invitation, in 1903, to take my camera to a place called Kitty Hawk and record the efforts of a pair of visionary men to fly. I explain that failure by the fact that I had then reached the ripe old age of twenty and believed with most of my contemporaries that if God had intended men to fly, he’d have equipped them with wings.
At that age I had been educated for the most part by the facilities afforded in my father’s bookstore in Newport News, Virginia. As a student at the local high school I had failed to graduate. My peers couldn’t bear to have a perfect class image spoiled by one delinquent, and apparently the school authorities agreed; at any rate, as I learned decades later, my name was expunged from the record.
One of my first professional assignments was taking photos of college girls for the annuals published by the highly respectable J. P. Bell Company of Lynchburg, Virginia. The knees and thighs so freely exhibited by the present generation of girls were only dreamed of in 1913, when I completed the work for my first college annual; but the girls themselves were no different. As the years passed, I annually took pride in never having seduced a college girl when the opportunity presented itself (I was already married and had three children). But this joyful ordeal could not last forever, and in 1917, after some nudging by the J. P. Bell Company and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, I took the train for New York and began the second plateau of my career as a photographer.
In my Tin Pan Alley studio on West Forty-seventh Street, between 1917 and 1922, I took publicity photos of dozens of stage and film celebrities of the period and made contacts that eventually led me to similar assignments in London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Berlin, and various other European cities and resorts. Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha, Fred and Adele Astaire, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks, Gilda Gray, Anna Pavlova, the Dolly sisters, Gloria Swanson, Bessie Love, Charlie Chaplin, Jeanne Eagels, Will Rogers, Ann Harding, Betty Compson, Marion Davies, Ziegfeld Follies girls and Folies Berg√®res girls—those are just a few of the names that come to my mind when I think back to those days. In 1922 Lillian Gish suggested that I spend a few months away from New York and go to Italy to take stills for her film The White Sister. I went, and instead of a few months I stayed in Europe for the next fifteen years, producing thousands of photos and a whole new set of children by a new wife. In addition to theatrical work I got into news journalism, which among other things resulted in my taking portraits of Hitler, in 1931, and Stalin, in 1932. At that time Hitler was just moving into a position of national power, while Stalin had already arrived. (Stalin was notoriously camera shy, and I photographed him with an ordinary folding Kodak on the theory that it would scare him less than any of the complicated German cameras I’d left in my Novo Moscovskoy hotel. In the end he let me have a full half hour of his time instead of the promised five minutes.) In 1937 I was a photographer-correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, covering the Spanish Civil War from the Franco side; Ernest Hemingway was my opposite number on the Loyalist side of the lines. Then I came back to the States and worked in Hollywood for a time; when World War came along, they said I was too old to be a war correspondent, so I got a job as a radio news commentator—no doubt partly because, in Sheridan, Wyoming (where I happened to be at the time), there were not many people around who knew how to pronounce such words as Luftwaffe and Dnepropetrovsk. I now live happily in San Francisco with my fourth wife, where I muse upon the past and keep in touch with my children and grandchildren, one of whom is gathering materials for a biography of me that she says will be entitled Our Father Who Ain’t in Heaven.”
(American Heritage Magazine, December 1972 Volume 24, Issue 1)


James Abbe with his daugther Patience
Studio of Gabriel Moulin, San Francisco 1945
From photography-now.com



2 comments:

Kathleen said...

You have a photo of Wallace Reid playing the piano that you labeled Rudolph Valentino. It is one of several photos of Reid taken in his home, wearing a tweed jacket (in another, well-known photo from the same sitting, he is shown holding a book), so it is quite recognizable.

rompedas said...

Dear Kathleen,
You are right. But I am sure Wallace Reid could be mistaken for Rudolph Valentino. I shall edit THE TRAMP PHOTOGRAPHER. Thanks for pointing out the mistake.