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Lotte Jacobi

JACOBI, LOTTE (Johanna Alexandra; 1896–1990), U.S. photographer. Born in Thorn, West Prussia (now Torun, Poland), to a fourth-generation photographer family, Jacobi captured the heady spirit of the Weimar Republic, particularly the intellectual and artistic elite who lived in Berlin or passed through it, before she fled the Nazis in 1935. She began her photographic career at 14, documenting the world around her with a homemade pinhole camera. Her family had the most famous portrait-photography business in Germany, Atelier Jacobi, with studios in Thorn, Poznan, and Berlin. She was in her early thirties when she finished her studies and joined her parents and sister in Berlin, where the family had moved. She was equipped for the job not only by talent but by temperament. An emancipated woman with a leftist political slant, she had an inquiring approach and a knack for bringing subjects to her lens. Her aim was to capture each sitter's individuality. "In making portraits, I refuse to photograph myself," she said. "My style is the style of the people I photograph."

One of her famous subjects was Peter *Lorre. She was allowed only one image, and it turned out to be a classic, with Lorre shot as close up as possible. She captured his villainous look, but softened the angle by shooting from above. Her interest in modern dance led her to make photos of dancers in action, aided by her own quickness and new camera technology. Her photographs of an unknown Lotte Lenya holding a cigarette, the actor Emil Jannings casually peeling an apple, and the dancer Claire Bauroff captured the essence of Berlin theater life. In 1932 her leftist sympathies led her to do a series of Ernst Thalmann, the Communist candidate that year against Hitler. Then, a long trip to the Soviet Union resulted in rare and interesting shots of street scenes in Moscow and the republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But when she returned to Germany, the Nazis questioned her about her trip, her political sympathies, and her Jewish background. She finally left Germany after her father's death.

In New York, she opened a studio with her sister Ruth but struggled to find work. An important American contact was Albert *Einstein, whom she and her family had photographed in Germany. He agreed to work with her when, in 1938, Life magazine commissioned a photo essay on the scientist. She made several informal photographs at Einstein's home in Princeton, N.J., in conversations with his students, but Life felt they were too casual and decided not to publish them. However, in 1942, the magazine U.S. Camera, at the instigation of Edward Steichen, published a photo of a dreamy Einstein, in a rumpled leather jacket, hair askew, that became one of the most famous images of him. In the 1940s Jacobi explored the technique of photogenics, expressive abstract images made by drawing with a flashlight on photographic paper. The process had been extensively explored in the early 20th century by Man *Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

In 1940, in New York, she married her second husband (she and her first husband had divorced), Erich Reiss, a German avant-garde publisher who was rescued from a Nazi death camp. He died in 1951. In New Hampshire, living with his son's family, she continued her interest in the forms of nature, taking pictures of snow, water, and other phenomena in the countryside. She remained active as a portrait photographer, developing a new set of subjects and friends, including the poets Robert Frost and May Sarton, the ecological activists Helen and Scott Nearing, and a fellow photographer, Paul Caponigro. She opened a gallery in Deering and served as a mentor to younger artists for 30 years. Among her other notable portraits – all in black and white – were those of the dramatist Kurt *Weill, Eleanor Roosovelt, Marc *Chagall, and the musician Pablo Casals. She bequeathed a collection of 47,000 negatives to the University of New Hampshire. Her earlier work was lost to the Nazis.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.