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©The Lotte Jacobi Collection, University of New Hampshire.

Portrait of Berenice Abbott

circa 1940
gelatin silver print
9 3/8 in. x 6 3/4 in. (23.81 cm x 17.15 cm)
Gift of Richard Thorner in Memory of his Parents, Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Thorner, 1999.12

Lotte Jacobi


With her direct gaze and short-cropped hair, Berenice Abbott looks confident, accomplished, and modern in appearance. Centered, close to the camera, and defined by raking light from the camera’s left side, Abbott’s face dominates the frame and is accentuated by her hand held in a gesture of active posing. The flat, gray background emphasizes her features and the dramatic play of light upon her face.

Abbott’s form is defined here by the contrast between the sharp focus on her face and the slightly out-of-focus diagonal lines of her coat and ears. The contrast arises from the photographer’s choice to use a lens with a relatively shallow depth of field.

Context and Analysis

Lotte Jacobi can be counted among the most accomplished portrait photographers of her time. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, she honed her art in her native city of Berlin, Germany, where she made photographic portraits of actors, politicians, and others. Jacobi immigrated to the United States in 1935, settling first in New York and then, in 1955, in New Hampshire.

Jacobi’s incisive portraits are innovative in their striking compositions and in their candid, humane approach to their subjects. Portrait of Berenice Abbott, made nearly seventy-five years ago, appears modern because of Jacobi’s selective control of camera focus, her use of a centered composition, the sense of intimate closeness, and her innovative use of lighting.

Abbott was a fellow photographer and a friend to Jacobi in New York. She helped Jacobi overcome the difficulties of her move to the United States. In the 1920s Abbott became a photographer after being hired by American artist Man Ray as a darkroom assistant in Paris. She developed her art rapidly, making Modernist portraits of literary and artistic figures. She also discovered and promoted the work of the early French photographer Eugène Atget, who was not well known at the time. In 1929, she returned to New York City and began photographing the city with a large-format, 8x10 camera. She published these images in her book Changing New York (1939), a landmark in the history of photography.

One of the recurring strengths of Jacobi’s portraits is the sense of the subject’s personality and spirit that emerges from each one. Jacobi stated: “My style is the style of the person in front of me.” In this case, she took as her subject a photographer with extensive experience in making portraits. We may imagine that Abbott played an active role in the construction of this portrait.


The Currier owns another photographic portrait of Berenice Abbott, made by Paul George Schutzer in 1950 (Currier, 1992.15.32). Abbott here also posed with her hand under her face and a direct gaze toward the camera, though with a three-quarters view and her shoulder in view, rather than Jacobi’s straightforward close-up.

Photography offered women better professional and artistic opportunities in the early to mid-1900s than were available to them in other fields of the visual arts. The Currier has in its collection photographs by a number of women photographers: Lotte Jacobi, Berenice Abbott, Ruth Jacobi, Doris Ulmann, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Florence Henri, Germaine Krull, Imogene Cunningham, Lisette Model, and others.

Written by Martin Fox


Beckers, Marion, and Elisabeth Moortgat. Lotte Jacobi: Berlin, New York. Berlin: Verborgene Museum, 1997.

Moriarty, Peter. Lotte Jacobi: Photographs. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003.

O’Neal, Hank. Berenice Abbott: American Photographer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Sundstom, Kurt J. Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi. Manchester, NH: Currier Museum of Art, 2004.

Wise, Kelly, ed. Lotte Jacobi. Danbury, NH: Addison House, 1979.

2003-2004 "Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi." Oraganized by Currier Museum of Art. Traveled to: Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, Oct. 10, 2003 - Jan. 4, 2004; Jewish Museum, New York, NY, Feb. 6 - April 11, 2004; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, June 18 - Sept. 5, 2004.

2012 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "A New Vision: Modernist Photography." Feb. 4 - May 13.

Richard Thorner
Gift to Currier Gallery of Art, 1999

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