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A World-Class Photographer

Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), a portrait photographer, leading figure in the fields of abstract and documentary photography, and contributor to the development of landscape and narrative photography, was passionate about her profession. Born in Prussia (today Prussia is part of eastern Germany, Poland and a small part of Russia) into a family of photographers (her great-grandfather Samuel began working with a camera soon after an encounter with Daguerre, the French inventor of photography), her career spanned eight decades and many geographic locations. Early in her career she photographed artists, actors, writers and dancers, as she was drawn to the world of the arts, film and theater. Later, through her photographic portraits, she captured, in black and white, the essence of famous individuals such as Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt and artist Marc Chagall.

She fled Hitler’s Germany prior to World War II, as she feared that her Jewish heritage and Bolshevik sympathies would not allow her to find work. She set up a studio in New York City, where she worked for LIFE magazine and her life was soon woven into the cultural fabric of New York City. She pioneered an abstract form of photography called photogenics and was a persistent spokesperson for the inclusion of photography as an art form in museums worldwide.

Jacobi’s photographs sought to make visible the intangibles of her subject. Her photographs of the world-famous physicist Albert Einstein, make the viewer feel as if he or she might have known the sitter, as he is neither posed formally nor dressed specially for the occasion. Her work is candid and approachable, and the viewer feels as if he/she can identify with the sitter, even if he is world-famous. Einstein is captured in a private moment, deep in thought. He is dressed in a leather jacket, buttoned neatly to his neck, with his signature messy hair. Only the slightly legible numbers and symbols on the notepad resting on his knee gives any indication of the sitters’ vocation or depth of his genius. By focusing on Einstein’s inner nature rather than his celebrity, Jacobi defied the world of contemporary photographic journalism.

In the 1950s, already in her 60s, she settled in New Hampshire on her son’s property in the town of Deering, where she would live for another 30 years. Her presence and reputation immediately attracted the attention of the local arts community, leading to her first major exhibition held at the Currier in 1959. In New Hampshire Jacobi befriended and then photographed many of the region’s leading writers, artists and scholars. She was inspired by her surroundings and began to photograph the natural beauty of the countryside in a somewhat abstract manner. Her studies of water, snow, leaves and sky are captivating for their abstract quality and portrayal of nature’s beauty.

Today, Jacobi’s photographs are regarded as an important contribution to photography and the history of art.

Source: Focus on the Soul, The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi, Kurt J. Sundstrom, Currier Museum of Art, 2003.

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Lotte Jacobi, Albert Einstein, 1938

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