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Lotte Jacobi: absorbed in a career of extraordinary images

In her 1930 self-portrait, photographer Lotte Jacobi crouches by her enormous camera, poised and ready for the considerable work that lies ahead. Over 50 years later she is still in the midst of that work, still disgruntled by the knowledge that the day aren't long enough for camera and photographer to get everything done.

Even by 1930 Miss Jacobi had already amassed what for most others would be a distinguished portfolio. Working out of her father's studio, the young photographer had made extraordinary images of the extraordinary people who inhabited her world: Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Albert Einstein, Fritz Lang, among many others in the creative milieu that was 1920s Berlin.

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During the following years that would bring her to New York, where she and her sister became the fourth generation of Jacobis with a portrait studio, and then to a secluded studio in rural New Hampshire, the body of work increased in both style and scope. Recognition, however, was far slower to develop, and it is something that the 84-year-old photographer is not even sure she wants.

"With the recognition have come demands on my time, and that doesn't leave me enough for all I want to do," she says. "There are no limits to what one can do with photography. The only limits are with the person taking the pictures."

Two years ago the first and only anthology of her work was published, a handsome book simply titled "Lotte Jacobi" (Danbury, N.H.: Addison House, $30), which includes a sampling of her portraits, street scenes, and lyrical abstract works called "photogenics." Today her work is nearly always on exhibit somewhere , a sizable one scheduled for the Deja Vu Gallery in Toronto in early March. The International Center of Photography in New York is busy assembling material for a show scheduled for early next year that will include photos by Lotte Jacobi, her sister, Ruth, her father, and her grandfather.

If the exhibits of her work reveal any overriding characteristic, it may simply be the way she has presented the simple humanity of the legendary figures she has photographed. It is a style that has not alwasys won much favor, particularly in 1938 when she photographed Einstein for Life magazine. Her now-famous portrait of te scientist sitting slumped in a leather jacket and lost in a world of his own was rejected. A great man, the editors told her, should not be presented in such an undignified way.

Her father was her toughest critic, puzzled by his daughter's unconventional style, which included getting her subjects to talk as she photographed them. "Portraiture was then very stiff and formal," she recalls. "but shortly before my father died, he told me, 'You know, Lotte, I think your pictures have something.' That was the proudest moment of my life."

He was, after all, her earliest teacher. When she asked for a camera at 12, he insisted that she first learn technique by making a camera herself. He helped to fashion a pinhole camera which, she says, enabled her to "take the best pictures I've ever made."

When she joined her father in his Berlin studio, she reluctantly carried on the family tradition, which had begun when her great-grandfather learned the photographer's art from Daguerre. "It wasn't that I didn't want to be a photographer -- I had always wanted to do that. But the business side didn't appeal to me," she says, and then laughs. "It still doesn't."

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Because portraits were the family business, it was portraits that she did, soon finding that the local newspapers -- Berlin had 120 of them -- were clamoring for her work. But success in Berlin was not to last more than a few years. Hitler had risen to power, and Germany was fast becoming a place where a Jewish photographer should not remain.

Shortly after her father passed on in 1935, Miss Jacobi and her son from a brief marriage headed for New York, where her sister had lived since 1928. Within three weeks of her arrival the two women had established a portrait studio in midtown Manhattan. As she had done in Berlin, Lotte Jacobi brought her own unconventional style to those she photographed.

They were include Eleanor Roosevelt sitting back, gesturing, and obviously speaking in midsentence; Marc Chagall depicted as a jovial family man; Thomas Mann appearing as thoughtful as his work; and more candid, gentle portraits of Einstein, who, like her, was now living on American soil.

As remarkable as this work was, it was to be admired only by the few who recognized its artistry -- chiefly by photograppher friends such as Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, and Barbara Morgan. Just as her work deviated from the stiff poses of traditional portraiture, neither did it mesh with the slick magazine journalism of the day.

When asked how she achieves the naturalness of her portraits, she says simply , "I just try and get people to talk, to relax, to be themselves. I don't like a passive, bored subject. I do portraits because I like people, and I want to bring out their personalities. Many photographers today, I think, are bringing out the worst part of people. I try and bring out the best."

During the 1940s she added a new dimension to her work -- the "photogenics" that are made without the use of the camera. After hearing Einstein talking about multidimensions, she was inspired to make shapes from paper and then move them around on sensitized paper just as it was exposed to light. The results are an array of shadowy, abstract photographs that do indeed have a multidimensional look.

In 1955 she closed up shop in New York and accompanied her son and daughter-in-law to Deering, N.H., where she lives and works in the cozy, plant-filled studio that her son built for her in 1962.From its wide south window one can see the hives where she keeps her bees and the land where she tends her extensive organic vegetable garden.

But beekeeping and gardening are only tasks that she does in addition to her still-active work with the camera, using it for such diverse purposes as photographing landscapes and, in 1976, to record the proceeding of the Democratic National Convention. In 1980 she went to the convention as a Carter delegate.

A highlight of the New Hampshire stage of her career was when she photographed Robert Frost in 1959. She found in him both a compelling subject and a good friend. "His secretary told me that I could only photograph him for 20 minutes, because any more than that would tire him out," she recalls. "Well, my daughter-in-law was along and she chatted with him while I worked, and we were all having a marvelous time. After 20 minutes, I said that it was time to stop. He turned and said, 'Whatever for?' and so we continued for a good long time after that. Then he invited us for a glass of ginger beer in his studio, where we spent another hour talking about gardening and all sorts of things we had in common."

Looking at a Jacobi photo of the aged poet strolling in his field and totally absorbed in conversation, one gets a sense of how pleasant that afternoon must have been.

During the last decade a number of admirers tried to put together a book of her work, but met with no success. "Publishers wanted photography books with themes, and found my work impossible to categorize," she says. "That's because I've always been totally opposed to specializing."

But two years ago, the book finally appeared.Soon afterward a stream of young photographers were knocking at her door, asking for advice. "I found that so many are confining themselves to the same technique, the same type of shot over and over," she says. "To specialize like that is to be like one of those horses on a merry-go-round who must go up and down and stare straight ahead. The world is round, I tell them, and you have to look around at it."

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