National Portrait Gallery Unearths Early Photographic Pioneer
Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of photography as an art form has probably heard of Edward Steichen, a giant who — along with Alfred Stieglitz — became a hugely influential figure in the early annals of American photography. So who, you might ask, is Zaida Ben-Yusuf?
A stellar star in her own right, Ben-Yusuf was one of the few early women photographers to achieve prominence, yet at the same time she remains a woman shrouded in mystery. She photographed famous American politicians, writers and artists between the late 1800s and early 1900s, but then disappeared into an almost willful obscurity.
Yet here she is, deservedly rescued from that obscurity by the National Portrait Gallery, which is featuring an exhibition of her work — the first in 100 years — titled “Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer.”
The exhibit’s 50 photographs are featured alongside a more familiar display of photos by Steichen, who traversed similar territory but at a later time.
At first blush, the two seem odd companions and not just because of gender.
Ben-Yusuf — born in London to a German mother and Algerian father — had a consuming interest in clothes as well as an artistic and precocious passion for photography, earning respect in New York circles devoted to such matters. Steichen, on the other hand, is the pioneer and prophet who helped turn photography into an art form.
The portraits by Steichen on display here are as iconic as the subjects they depict — superstars of the 1920s and 1930s in literature, art, film, performance, politics and theater. These luminaries still shine in old dreams: Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, Paul Robeson, Martha Graham and J.P. Morgan.
Ben-Yusuf’s subjects are familiar too — luminaries of an earlier time — from novelist Edith Wharton to writer William Dean Howells to former President Theodore Roosevelt. They are major American cultural and historical figures of a certain period — post-Gilded Age and pre-World War I — but Ben-Yusuf makes something more out of them. Likewise, Steichen adds a certain glow and panache to his subjects, even if for some of them, like Chaplin or Astaire, it’s like a second coating.
Steichen’s work — culled here from the National Portrait Gallery holdings — is so familiar that the reflection it casts on Ben-Yusuf’s photographs makes her work appear oddly more original. In reality, her pictures aren’t that particularly original, but the images do have the quality of being rare, unremembered and therefore fresh.
The National Portrait Gallery exhibition covers a relatively brief period of time in Ben-Yusuf’s career, during which she could accurately describe herself as a photographer. Gallery curator Frank H. Goodyear III, intrigued by one of her photographs, did some research and discovered her work, along with an oddly muted life story.
Her photographs seem to have first appeared around 1896 and vanished roughly 16 years later. Ben-Yusuf’s meteoric rise began with two “photographic art studies” published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1896, the year she also exhibited one photograph in the Fourth Photographic Salon of the United States.
A year later, she opened a photography studio in New York and had one of her photographs published in Camera Notes by Alfred Stieglitz. She would later have her work exhibited alongside that of the legendary Stieglitz, a measure of her status as a photographer. By 1901, she was well established as a portrait photographer — enough so that she also published extensively on the subject.
Like many of her counterparts, Ben-Yusuf was part of the great debate in art circles about what photography was and what it should do — imitate painting, move into abstractions, etc. Certainly her photographs have a style that borders on the highly atmospheric, even hypnotic, possessing that quintessential ingredient in fine portrait photography of opening a window into the soul.
Nevertheless, photography didn’t seem to consume her. In spite of her status in New York, Ben-Yusuf took up traveling and eventually went back to the world of fashion and clothing. After that, her work effectively disappeared, and she died in 1933.
In some ways, the exhibition resembles an archeological dig, with 50 valuable and beautiful finds as the result. But the photographs also serve as appetizers that satisfy but beg for something more. It’s obvious Ben-Yusuf moved in high-level cultural and artistic circles — after all, you don’t get Teddy Roosevelt in your parlor on a whim. At the same time, there’s a distance in her work. It’s hard to find a definitive thumbprint of this elusive personality in her photographs, only the marks of inspiration and excellence that personality left behind.
Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer and Edward Steichen: Portraits through Sept. 1 National Portrait Gallery located at 8th and F Streets, NW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.npg.si.edu.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.