How did the photographic legacy of German photographer Lotte Jacobi end up in the wilds of New Hampshire?
For that matter, how did she?
Her remarkable odyssey, along with that of her art, is the subject of "Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi," an intriguing but surprisingly modest retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The career of Johanna Alexandra Jacobi, known as Lotte, began in 1921 when she moved to Berlin from West Prussia (now Poland) with her family, and began formal studies in photography, art and film. The fourth generation in a prosperous family of photographers, Jacobi and her sister took over the Berlin branch of the business in 1927.
The Jacobi studio was one of 400 in Berlin -- a third of them run by women. But Jacobi quickly found her way to the top, specializing in portraits of the actors, artists and writers of Berlin's vibrant art world. Her celebrity images -- like those of Annie Leibovitz today -- were being voraciously consumed by proliferating magazines and newspapers.
It was in Berlin that many of her most memorable and evocative photographs were made: iconic images of Kurt Weill; Lotte Lenya, star of Weill's "Threepenny Opera," brazenly staring down the camera, cigarette in hand; actors Peter Lorre and Franz Lederer with their melancholy eyes. These images helped define what came to be the characteristic look of pre-World War II Berlin photographs and films.
She often said: "My style is the style of the person in front of me," and typically focused on the head and hands of her sitters. But unlike the artifice that dominates Leibovitz's work, it was Jacobi's ability to establish an intimate rapport with her subjects that made it possible for her to go beyond the surface to reveal something about their inner life.
This show is dominated by portraits. But there are surprises. It turns out that Jacobi made many rarely seen documentary photographs, some in Germany, others during her six-month stay in the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933, when she traveled as far as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. She brought home 7,000 negatives but printed only a few. The most memorable here are the tantalizing view of a ghetto in the snow -- a peek at a lost world -- and an ominous "View From the Tower of Death, Bukhara," showing the shadow of the minaret from which condemned prisoners were once thrown.
When Jacobi returned to Berlin in February 1933. Hitler had come to power, and it was clear that, as a Jew and leftist sympathizer, she would have to leave. She did two years later, after her father's death. She took with her what photographs she could, including her negatives from the Soviet trip and a few glass plate portrait negatives. But, tragically, what she left behind included most of her important early work, and it all vanished in World War II.
Arriving in New York in September 1935 with her young son from a short-lived early marriage, she started over, opening a studio at Sixth Avenue and 57th Street in the midst of the Great Depression. She took any job she could get, even weddings, the bane of every photographer. Eventually emigre friends, including Lenya and Lorre, helped her find portrait commissions. She did occasional, if unsatisfying, work for the Herald Tribune and Life magazine. Life sent her to photograph Albert Einstein, an old client of hers from Berlin. They spent hours together, and she created what is arguably the most famous image of him: slouching in a neatly buttoned black leather jacket, his hair askew, seemingly deep in thought with a writing pad in his lap. Claiming the photographs were too personal and not sufficiently grand, Life chose not to publish them.
She continued to make portraits, often of fellow emigres, including philosopher Thomas Mann, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, painter Marc Chagall (in a contagiously gleeful, intimate photograph with his daughter Ida), German expressionist printmaker Kaethe Kollwitz, scientist Max Planck and cellist Pablo Casals. She pursued subjects who shared her political views, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, and even managed to lure J.D. Salinger into sitting for a rare book-jacket shot.
Jacobi always stayed tuned to her times, and in the late '40s and '50s, when abstraction dominated the New York art world, she began experimenting with a type of cameraless photography called "photogenics," made by passing a light -- usually a flashlight -- over photographic paper, and then developing it. Man Ray and many others had explored this medium before her, but she used it to create some lush abstractions, which -- unlike her photographs -- were personally expressive and unique. A striking example is in the show.
In 1940, at 44, Jacobi married Erich Reiss, a writer and respected German publisher of avant-garde books, whose imprisonment by the Nazis had weakened his health. The marriage was happy but short. He died in 1951. Soon thereafter, she moved to Reiss's property in Deering, N.H., where she began another new chapter in her life, and, as it happened, the longest one. She opened a new studio where she continued her own work -- now mostly nature subjects of only modest interest.
Her lifelong interest in politics found a new outlet, and she became a fervent Democrat, representing New Hampshire at the Democratic National Convention in 1980. New Hampshire adopted her, honored her with honorary degrees and dubbed her a living treasure. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester staged her first American museum show in the '60s, and made her its honorary curator of photography for its newly hatched photograph collection.
When she died in 1990 at 93, Jacobi left 47,000 of her negatives, family snapshots, correspondence, books and papers to the University of New Hampshire -- a mother lode of material about her remarkable life and times.
So why, then, is this show so oddly unsatisfying? As Jacobi's first American retrospective, why isn't it more definitive? And why does it raise so many questions it never answers, such as why so many of the greatest photographs in it -- more than half of them -- are on loan from a museum in Tokyo? Since the text of the show offers no answers, I called the organizing curator at the Currier Museum, where the show opened last fall before moving on to a highly successful run at the Jewish Museum in New York (Washington is the final stop). It turns out that the 47,000 items in New Hampshire are mostly work prints and negatives, and that the cream of Jacobi's archive -- 1,600 exhibition-quality photographs printed by her -- were sold by her family in 1986 after her son's sudden, devastating death -- possibly because Jacobi needed funds to move into an assisted-living facility. The collection was purchased by a Beverly Hills art dealer and collector who eventually sold the collection to the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, which has since kept the collection in storage.
"It all happened under the radar, and no one in New Hampshire knew, or is very happy about it," says Currier curator Kurt Sundstrom, who organized this show. It's no longer possible to organize a Jacobi retrospective without cooperation of the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, which fortunately agreed to lend more than half of the 80 works in this show. "Jacobi would be very upset to know that her best photographs ended up in a warehouse outside Tokyo, and probably won't be seen by the public for many years."
But that doesn't explain the dreary presentation here, or why the Women's Museum has given this show such a halfhearted installation in two remote galleries, with no catalogue -- not even the modest one that was produced and handed out by the Currier Museum. Or why an interesting video on the artist, also produced by the Currier, is tucked into a corner where the sound is so muffled that it can hardly be heard.
Beyond the second-rate treatment at NMWA, there is a more basic problem with this show, which calls itself a retrospective but isn't. I understand the impulse: Jacobi deserves a comprehensive, full-blown scholarly survey, and New Hampshire wants her to have it. But this just isn't it.
Despite its shortcomings, anyone who sees this show is bound to be touched and edified by the tale it tells. But no one is likely to leave it without thinking that, eventually, Jacobi deserves something better.
Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through Sept. 5. Admission: adults, $8; visitors 60 and over and students, $6; 18 and under, free. Visit www.nmwa.org or call 800-222-7270 for more information.