In 1929, the photographer Lotte Jacobi shot a rare self-portrait. The ferociously independent, 33-year-old Jewish single mother was also a habitué of Weimar Berlin’s cafes, cabarets and theaters; her pictures of actors, clowns, leftists and intellectuals would help to define that glittering, heady era. In the self-portrait, she stares at her reflection with a restless, puzzled expression, a tousled mane of hair (already streaked with gray) fanning out behind her; emerging from darkness, her hands clutch the remote shutter release of her heavy, black-box camera as if tethered by an umbilical cord to her profession.
In fact, photography was, if not Jacobi’s birthright, then close to it. Three generations of Jacobi photographers had preceded her, starting with her great-grandfather Samuel, who in the 1840s had traveled from Prussia to Paris to meet with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, one of the medium’s inventors. As an adolescent in the Prussian town of Poznan, and later in Berlin, where she moved with her family in 1920, she toyed with the idea of becoming an actor, gardener or beekeeper. Instead, through a career spanning seven decades, photography turned out to be her anchor, providing not merely sustenance but a ticket into the world of culture, and a means of partly reconstituting the fragments of a community shattered by war.
“Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi,” which comes to New York’s Jewish Museum via the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire, where it originated, shines a spotlight on this quintessentially self-effacing artist, who claimed that her approach to image-making was entirely dictated by “the style of the people I photograph.” Luckily, her Weimar subjects had style to burn. In 1927, after studying photography and cinematography in Munich, Jacobi took over the family’s Berlin studio, remaking that solid bourgeois establishment, in the words of one assistant, as “a Bohemian paradise.”
The New Woman, with her bobbed hair, cigarettes and sudden autonomy, was everywhere — even behind the camera. They flocked (as many Jews did) to a modernist métier that required little formal training and held the promise of social mobility. Though several fashionable Berlin studios were headed by women, Atelier Jacob produced perhaps the most memorable portrait of Die neue fraue — Jacobi’s cinematic 1930 close-up of the singer Lotte Lenya, on the eve of her breakthrough performance as Jenny the Prostitute in “The Threepenny Opera.” Sultry and intense, made-up like a creature of the night, Lenya stares at the camera with an alarming directness, at once remote and available. (Jacobi’s streets scenes from Hamburg’s red-light district suggest a further fascination with the prostitute as symbol of modernity.)
She photographed performers both famous and now largely forgotten: a marvelously fey Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (later persecuted by the Nazis for his homosexuality), in top hat and tails for his role as “The Diplomat”; Peter Lorre, unmasked and surprisingly gentle; whirling modern dancers captured in mid-turn; and a melancholic Franz Lederer, the Czech-born actor isolated in darkness and soon to depart for America. Her immersion in the universe of theater was partly her response to the surreal political nightmare gaining ground in the world around her.
Jacobi’s leftist sympathies led to her association with the photographer Tina Modotti (then en route to Moscow via Berlin) and to her remarkable portrait of the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, an image of deep womanly compassion. She also photographed Ernst Thalmann, the German Communist Party candidate for president, later murdered in Buchenwald. In 1932, Thalmann arranged her trip to the Soviet Union. The Jewish Museum’s show includes photographs she took in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as a single shot in an unnamed “Russian ghetto,” where horse-drawn carts and snowy, mud-filled lanes resist the myth of Soviet progress.
Alerted by her mother to the Gestapo’s interest in her trip, Jacobi slipped back into Germany wearing a curvaceous fur coat under which she hid her cameras. But the danger could no longer be ignored. She waited for her father’s death from a long illness in 1935, then fled the country with her mother and son.
Many of her most striking images from New York depict fellow émigrés, such as German literary publisher Erich Reiss — soon to become her second husband — or a remarkable series commissioned by Life magazine, which shows her revered friend Albert Einstein in his Princeton study, lost in private contemplation. (The great scientist’s violin and music stand also are duly recorded, marks of the refugee’s ongoing dedication to German culture.) Life turned down the pictures, deeming them incongruous with the public face of genius. America’s homegrown luminaries also found their way into her work, with rare and moving portraits of J.D. Salinger and Paul Robeson. And she continued reinventing herself as an artist, creating “photogenics” — abstract compositions made by drawing with a flashlight on light-sensitive paper.
In 1955, following Reiss’s death, Jacobi moved to a farm in New Hampshire. There, too, she found a community of like-minded souls — the ecologists and writers Helen and Scott Nearing, the poet May Sarton and others who became her subjects. This was a woman who, well into her 90s, used the torch of Bohemia to illuminate her world. Yet her images of Weimar remain, for me, her major achievement. When she left Germany, the Nazis destroyed her archives — all that remains are the selection of pictures she carried with her into exile. We’re fortunate to have them.