02 May 2008

New Exhibition Resurrects Legacy of Groundbreaking Photographer

Ben-Yusuf produced memorable portraits that captured an era

 
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Zaida Ben-Yusuf’s 1899 photograph of art critic Sadakichi Hartmann
Zaida Ben-Yusuf’s 1899 photograph of art critic Sadakichi Hartmann reveals a modern aesthetic. (Univ. of Illinois Library)

Washington -- A new exhibition honoring the work of a photographer who helped redefine photographic portraiture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries traces the emergence of a newly industrialized America’s growing fascination with the lives of prominent people (a trend that, arguably, paved the way for today’s celebrity-obsessed popular culture).

The exhibition -- Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer, curated by Frank H. Goodyear III -- is on display from April 11 through September 1, 2008, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.  As Goodyear recently told America.gov, Ben-Yusuf was among the most influential photographers of her day, yet she remains a mysterious figure -- and largely unknown to all but a handful of scholars.

Born in London to an Algerian father and a German mother, Ben-Yusuf (1869-1933) emigrated to New York in 1895, where she became a milliner before venturing into photography -- first as a hobby, and soon afterward as a serious pursuit.  An energetic entrepreneur, she established her own Fifth Avenue portrait studio at age 28, and her interest in exploring the artistic possibilities of photography won praise from such famous contemporaries as Alfred Stieglitz and Fred Holland Day, both of whom championed photography as a legitimate art form.

Although Ben-Yusuf’s unusual background and stylish appearance undoubtedly attracted attention in New York, it was her innovative camera work that drew many of the city’s most high-profile residents to her studio: actors, writers, painters, sculptors, politicians and other notables.

A MODERN SENSIBILITY

According to Goodyear, the ambitious young woman’s refined aesthetic -- inspired, in part, by the compositions of society painters John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler and John White Alexander -- signaled a welcome departure from conventional studio portraiture.  Ben-Yusuf’s images were remarkably free of the contrived poses and hackneyed props so common to Victorian-era portrait photography.  Rejecting the use of potted palm trees or other clichéd backdrop pieces, Ben-Yusuf experimented with light and shadow to produce arresting -- and psychologically penetrating -- portraits of her subjects.

Goodyear explained that he had known nothing of Ben-Yusuf until 2003, when he and a colleague stumbled across two photographs from her portfolio.  “The first [image] was of Daniel Chester French, an important turn-of-the-century sculptor who created the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial” in Washington, he recalled.  “The other photograph was of Everett Shinn, a young modern artist associated with the so-called Ashcan School of the early 1900s.  These two prints caught my attention, because I thought they were beautiful and because I’d never heard of the photographer.  Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by this woman and wanted to find out more” about her life and career.

The details of Ben-Yusuf’s life are somewhat sketchy, but “during the 10 years she spent as a fashionable portrait photographer, from 1897 to 1907, she was very active in exhibiting her photographs and publishing her work in magazines,” said Goodyear.  Articles and photographs by Ben-Yusuf appeared in such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, and she also won a coveted position as spokeswoman for the Eastman Kodak company.

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The fluid lines of Ben-Yusuf’s 1899 portrait
The fluid lines of Ben-Yusuf’s 1899 portrait of actress Elsie Leslie echo a J.S. Sargent painting. (Library of Congress)

As a working professional, Ben-Yusuf combined an artist’s eye with the instincts of a shrewd businesswoman, and she clearly recognized the publicity value of photographing the rich and famous.  She created a “gallery of illustrious Americans,” as she described it, featuring her portraits of actress Elsie Leslie (1899), whose elegant pose evokes a figure from a Sargent painting; future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, photographed in 1899 while governor of New York; former U.S. President Grover Cleveland (1901), seemingly oblivious to the camera; artist and educator William Merritt Chase (1905), a study in patrician self-assurance; author Edith Wharton (circa 1901), projecting a dreamy wistfulness; Japanese-German art critic Sadakichi Hartmann (1899), shown in dramatic profile; and a parade of others.

RESCUE FROM OBLIVION

There is wide agreement among scholars that Ben-Yusuf played a significant role in shaping photography as a medium of artistic expression, which raises questions about why she vanished into obscurity after enjoying a decade of meteoric success.  Goodyear believes that gender discrimination was probably responsible.

“The story of photography’s elevation to fine-art status has been largely confined to male photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, whose career has been well documented,” he said.  “But we’re learning that women were also involved in this movement.”

In the late 1800s, the United States was a country in transition, changing from a mostly rural, agricultural society to a more industrialized, urban one.  This seismic shift was accompanied by a slew of progressive ideas -- social, political and artistic -- whose epicenter was New York, a cosmopolitan hub that became a magnet for innovators in science, journalism, literature, politics, and the visual and performing arts.

Sweeping societal change meant that traditional roles and assumptions were increasingly under siege, and restrictions on women’s career options began to fall away.  As a result, the relatively new field of photography gained acceptance as a respectable endeavor for women, and the talented newcomer Ben-Yusuf seized her chance.

Nonetheless, said Goodyear, “her career was short-lived because, as a single woman, she had to support herself -- and women’s professional opportunities were limited at the time,” even in an avant-garde metropolis like New York.  “She worked mostly on commission,” he added.  “Her work was well received and she was dedicated to her craft, but she almost certainly felt slighted by the predominantly male photographic establishment.”

Also, “she did not bequeath her papers and the bulk of her photographic work to any single institution, so the record of her achievements was dispersed,” he pointed out.  The difficulty in amassing a representative collection of her photographs further delayed a historical assessment of Ben-Yusuf’s achievements.

After 10 years in photography, Ben-Yusuf abandoned the field and entered the world of fashion design, which offered a more hospitable environment for career women.  She faded from view after closing her portrait studio, but Goodyear’s diligence in tracking down a substantial body of her work -- and the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to showcase her masterful images -- likely will help to restore her to her rightful place as a pioneering fine-arts photographer.

More information is available on the Web site of the National Portrait Gallery.

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