Jacobi, Lotte (1896–1990)

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Jacobi, Lotte (1896–1990)

German-born American photographer, a major figure in the history of photography, whose portraits of many of the greatest individuals of the 20th century are an archive of the modern age. Born Johanna Alexandra Jacobi on August 17, 1896, in Thorn, West Prussia, Germany (now Torun, Poland); died in Concord, New Hampshire, in May 6, 1990; daughter of Sigismund Jacobi and Marie (Mia) Lublinski Jacobi; sister of Alexander and Ruth Jacobi; received honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of New Hampshire, 1974; married Siegbert Fritz Honig; married Erich Reiss; children: (first marriage) one son, Jochen (known as John Frank Hunter after emigrating to the United States).

Headed a photography studio in Berlin (1927–35) and photographed many of the brilliant personalities of the Weimar Republic; fled Nazism (1935) and continued career in America.

Lotte Jacobi came from a premier family of photographers. In the early 1840s, her great-grandfather went to Paris to learn about photography from the new sensation's inventor, Louis Daguerre. Sensing a promising business opportunity, he purchased equipment and a license to use the Daguerre process, returning to Germany and a successful lifelong career as a photographer. Her grandfather and father also became professional photographers. "I was born to photography," said Jacobi.

She was born in 1896 in Thorn, West Prussia, and grew up in Posen (now Poznan, Poland) in a supportive, assimilated German-Jewish family. Delighting her parents (and annoying her brother and sister) with early signs of intellectual independence, Lotte showed an interest in working at her father's photography studio by age 12. Sigismund Jacobi allowed her to assist him with making wet plates for reproductions. She also observed the manner in which he sensitized his own paper, because the photographic paper commercially available was not up to Jacobi studio standards.

Before long, she expressed a desire for her own camera. Fine, said Sigismund, but first she would have to make her own, a pinhole camera; with his assistance, she built one and set about making prints. Her efforts, long lost, were the best photographs she ever made, she would later claim. Her enthusiasm for photography continued

to grow, and within a year her father presented her with a 12-cm. Erneman camera. Although for a short period during her late teens Jacobi hoped to become an actress, she was fated for a future in photography. She did, however, retain a strong fascination with the stage, an interest that would be revived when she moved to Berlin. For the next few years, she continued taking photographs for her own private pleasure. In 1916, she appeared to have chosen a life of domesticity, marrying Siegbert Fritz Honig, the son of a prosperous Posen merchant. A son Jochen (later known as John Frank Hunter) was born to the couple, who had a troubled marriage from the start. Lotte and Siegbert separated for the last time in 1924, and their divorce was finalized in 1926.

Life for the Jacobi family changed dramatically in 1921 when Posen became part of the newly established Republic of Poland. Lotte moved to Berlin with her family, where the Jacobi photo studio, which her father had established in the German capital some years earlier, prospered as the German economy began to revive. With the end of her marriage, Lotte decided to train professionally as a photographer, enrolling at Munich's Bavarian State Academy for Photography. She studied various aspects of photography and film, working closely with the noted photographer Hanna Seewald . In 1927, with the completion of her studies, Jacobi moved back to Berlin where she began working at her father's studio.

I am opinionated. I am a born rebel and a troublemaker.

—Lotte Jacobi

Berlin in the 1920s was a virtual festival of the arts. The Weimar spirit, bursting with the energies of modernity, would leave its mark on the remainder of the 20th century. As a talented young photographer and theater enthusiast, Jacobi found herself moving in the most brilliant circles in town. The quality of her work came to the attention of older photographers, including Otto Renger-Patsch who would serve as her patron. She would photograph most of the leading artistic and intellectual personalities of Germany during the next six years, including Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz , Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya , Bertolt Brecht, Gerhart Hauptmann, Heinrich Mann, Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt , George Grosz, Carl von Ossietzky, Lion Feuchtwanger, Fritz Lang, Karl Kraus, Erwin Piscator, Emil Jannings and Peter Lorre. These portraits captured the essence of the sitters, who are often caught slightly off-guard. Displaying a quasi-snapshot quality which looks to have been achieved with ease, these works are in fact the result of immense skill and talent.

Jacobi purchased an Ermanox 9x12 cm. camera in 1928, one of the newest and best cameras then on the German market. Fitted with a 16.5 cm. Ernostar 1:1.8 lens, it was the fastest available, and only nine of these extraordinary made-to-order instruments were ever produced. One reason for this acquisition was the camera's performance during live theater events. Among the many historic evenings in German theater history that Jacobi documented was the premiere performance of Marieluise Fleisser 's Pioneers in Ingolstadt. She was also on hand to photograph the premiere performance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera).

Although not active in party politics during the Weimar Republic, Jacobi followed political developments with great interest and was sympathetic to the Left. Many of the artists she photographed, and whose circles she moved in, were Communists or sympathetic to Communism. Starting in 1930, when Adolf Hitler's Nazis began taking center stage in German public life, many saw Marxism as the only realistic alternative to fascism. During these years, a pilgrimage to Moscow was virtually obligatory for the world's anti-fascists. While Jacobi was again in the Soviet Union during the summer of 1930, Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti became an acquaintance and offered use of her studio darkroom in Moscow. Jacobi also organized an exhibition of Modotti's work in her own studio during her fellow photographer's brief sojourn in Berlin.

Karlstadt, Liesl (1892–1960)

German cabaret performer. Name variations: Lisl Karlstadt. Born in 1892; died in 1960.

German cabaret performer Liesl Karlstadt, along with Karl Valentin, set the tone of popular culture in Munich for a generation.

suggested reading:

Dimpfl, Monika. Immer veränderlich: Liesl Karlstadt (1892–1960). Munich: Monacensia A-1 Verlag, 1996.

Unterstoeger, Hermann. "Das Geheimnis der Girafftorte. Immer veränderlich—eine Ausstellung über Leben und Leiden der Liesl Karlstadt," in Süddeutsche Zeitung. March 28, 1996.

During 1932, the last year of pre-Nazi Germany, Jacobi's involvement in politically charged events increased. She documented the prosecution of Carl von Ossietzky, a courageous anti-Nazi editor of the journal Die Weltbühne, who was sentenced to prison for alleged high treason. Her photographs of Ossietzky during his trial and afterwards remain a powerful view of a democracy in its death throes. Ossietzky would die in 1938 as a result of the treatment he received in a Nazi concentration camp. In 1932, Jacobi also photographed Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German Communist Party, who was also to die in a Nazi concentration camp. She would accept no honorarium from Thäl-mann for her services, suggesting to him instead that she would be grateful if he could arrange a trip to the Soviet Union for her. Surprisingly, he remembered her request and by September 1932, Jacobi was in the Soviet Union taking photographs. Among the most memorable was a portrait of the veteran Bolshevik Karl Radek, who was purged and died in Stalin's gulag in 1939. Another legendary revolutionary, Max Hoelz, whom she had photographed around the

same time in Berlin, was also to be liquidated by Stalin, in this case in a "boating accident."

By the time Jacobi returned to Berlin in February 1933, Adolf Hitler had become Germany's chancellor and the edifice of the Nazi dictatorship was rapidly being erected. She refused at first to even consider the idea of leaving Germany and initially employed a strategy of adaptation to the new atmosphere of political terror and anti-Semitism. She hoped that by giving her studio a more "Aryan" name, it might survive. Several name changes took place, including "Jacobi and Bender," but this one had to be dropped when it was discovered that her partner Bender had a Jewish ancestor. Such stratagems were of little use, and by 1934 Jacobi was banned from exhibiting her work. After her father's death in March 1935, she and her mother resolved to leave Germany.

After a brief stay in London, she arrived in New York City on September 9, 1935. Her sister Ruth Jacobi , also a photographer, had been living there with her husband for some time and offered temporary accommodations. For a while, the two sisters worked out of the same studio in Manhattan, located on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 57th Street. Soon, however, Jacobi was able to establish her own studio. Because of the strength of her Berlin reputation (which was already known to leading American photographers)—and the fact that more and more of her friends, acquaintances and clients from Berlin had now settled in New York City as refugees from Nazism—she was quickly back at work as a portraitist of note. Before long, she established productive contacts with leading photographers in her new country, including Berenice Abbott , Barbara Morgan , and Alfred Stieglitz. Jacobi also became known to American newspapers and magazines, with her work appearing in Life, The New York Times, and the New York Herald-Tribune. Not all editors, however, appreciated the candor and spontaneity of her portraiture, and she would never be published in as many mass-circulation periodicals in the United States as she had been in pre-Nazi Germany.

In addition to photographing news, Jacobi occasionally made news herself. In 1938, she became the first woman ever to be permitted to photograph on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange during regular business hours. Mostly, however, she continued in her best-known field of portraiture. Starting in the 1930s, she photographed fellow exiles from Germany, including Thomas Mann, Max Rein-hardt, Helene Thimig , Alexander Granach, Paul Tillich, Karen Horney , Hubertus Prinz von Löwenstein, and Oskar Maria Graf. Her most famous photograph of an exile celebrity is her 1938 portrait of a relaxed Albert Einstein wearing a leather jacket. Among the many other luminaries she photographed during her first decade in the United States were Eleanor Roosevelt , Margaret Mead , W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Paul Robeson, Theodore Dreiser, Erskine Caldwell, Robert Frost, and Billie Holiday .

In 1940, Jacobi married Erich Reiss, a fellow refugee from Nazism who had been one of Berlin's most innovative publishers before 1933. Always experimenting with new photographic techniques, in the mid-1940s Jacobi began to create cameraless abstract images produced either by playing light beams over a sheet of sensitized paper or by exposing to a fixed or moving light source various translucent and opaque objects placed in patterns on sensitized paper. Calling the new art form "photogenics," she joined Carlotta Corpron and other photographers who boldly sailed into uncharted waters.

After the death of her husband in 1951, Jacobi needed a change of scene. Her son and his wife had long lived in New Hampshire, and in 1955 she moved to that state to concentrate on "freedom and nature." To an interviewer she confided that her pleasures in rural Deering included keeping bees (a dream she'd had since her youth), gardening, watching birds and being a natural foods enthusiast. In her mid-60s, she learned to drive so she could attend classes at the University of New Hampshire, where she studied not only graphic arts and art history, but also French, educational television and horticulture.

Mentally alert and physically spry, Jacobi remained active in her personal and professional pleasures during the final decades of her life. Travel included a trip to Europe to visit her hometowns of Thorn and Posen (now Torun and Poznan in Poland), as well as stays in Berlin and other German cities. During an extended visit to Paris, she studied etching and engraving with William Stanley Hayter. Back in New Hampshire, in 1963 she opened an art gallery to bring attention to the works of talented young artists and photographers. Refusing to slow down, in her 80s she visited Peru to see antiquities and, not surprisingly, to take advantage of opportunities to photograph. She also became active in local and national politics. As a committed Democrat, she spoke out in conventions and meetings on a great variety of subjects and maintained that she had been able to introduce art as a plank on the party platform "because they are afraid of a cranky old lady."

Honors were showered on Jacobi during her final years. In 1974, she received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of New Hampshire. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter extended a personal invitation to the White House. That year, when she was 83, Jacobi was seen wearing a black leather jacket of the Hell's Angels. "I am opinionated. I am a born rebel and a troublemaker," she told critic Vicki Goldberg (American Photographer, March 1979). As a photographer, she said, "You can't see what I do. I don't need any background or anything special. I make it simple and try never to complicate things." Lotte Jacobi died of pneumonia on May 6, 1990, at the Havenwood-Heritage Heights Retirement Center in Concord, New Hampshire.


"Artist and Activist, Photography Great Lotte Jacobi Dies," in The Union Leader. May 8, 1990, p. 1.

Beckers, Marion, and Elisabeth Moortgat. Atelier Lotte Jacobi Berlin New York. Berlin: Das verborgene Museum/Nicolai, 1998.

Fraser, C. Gerald. "Lotte Jacobi, 93; Photographer Made Portraits of Artists," in The New York Times Biographical Service. May 1990, p. 429.

Halley, Anne. "Photographs by Lotte Jacobi: Shaker Women in New Hampshire," in The Massachusetts Review. Vol. 24, no. 1. Spring 1983, pp. 113–124.

Jacobi, Lotte. Berlin-New York: Schriftsteller in den 30er Jahren. Edited by Walter P.H. Scheffler. 2nd rev. ed. Marbach am Neckar and Stutttgart: Deutscher Literaturarchiv/ Cotta, 1983.

——. Russland 1932/33: Moskau, Tadschikistan, Usbekistan. Edited by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat. Berlin: Nishen, 1988.

——. Theater and Dance Photographs. Introduction by Cornell Capa. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1982.

Milton, Sybil. "The Refugee Photographers, 1933–1945," in Helmut F. Pfanner, ed. Kulturelle Wechselbeziehungen im Exil—Exile across Cultures. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1986, pp. 279–293.

Mitchell, Margaretta K. "Jacobi, Lotte (Johanna)," in Martin M. Evans, ed. Contemporary Photographers. 3rd ed. NY: St. James Press, 1995, pp. 545–547.

——. Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. NY: Viking Press, 1979.

Pfanner, Helmut, and Gary Samson. "Lotte Jacobi: German Photographer and Portraitist in Exile," in The Germanic Review. Vol. 62, no. 3. Summer 1967, pp. 109—.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 3rd ed. NY: Abbeville Press, 1997.

Tarshis, Jerome. "German Photography Between the Wars," in Portfolio: The Magazine of the Visual Arts. Vol. 3, no. 2. March–April, 1981, pp. 62–67.

Whelan, Richard. "Are Women Better Photographers Than Men?," in Art News. Vol. 79, no. 8. October 1980, pp. 80–88.

Wise, Kelly, ed. Lotte Jacobi. Introduction by James Fasanelli. Danbury, NH: Addison House, 1978.


Lotte Jacobi Papers and Collection, Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire.

related media:

A Conversation with Lotte Jacobi, Washington, DC: PBS Video, 1977.

Lotte Jacobi: Portrait, Chicago: Loyola University Media Services, 1981.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Jacobi, Lotte (1896–1990)

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