photographer. A native of Newport News, Abbe (1883-1973) made a name for himself photographing stars of the stage and cinema in New York, Paris, and London in the 1920s and '30s. He also traveled throughout Europe as an early photojournalist recording the turbulent power struggles of the early 20th century.
Many of his singular black-and-white images are portraits of famous celebrities that capture the "lure of the limelight." Rather than working in his studio, Abbe photographed actors -- including Charlie Chaplin, Tyrone Power, Gloria Swanson, and Josephine Baker -- in full costume on the stage. His unconventional technique set him apart from his contemporaries, and led him to effectively revolutionize the art of publicity stills. His silvery photographs capture the surreal quality of the makeup and lighting that is so unique to silent movies. While the stars used his sophisticated images for publicity purposes, Abbe also sold his photographs to popular magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, making him an early catalyst for media-induced celebrity.
In addition to his portraiture of the famous, Abbe's impressive portfolio includes coverage of the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi's rise in Germany during the 1930s. He photographed all of the notorious European leaders of the time, and in 1928 and 1932 he documented events taking place inside the Soviet Union. His famous portrait of Joseph Stalin was used to stop widespread rumors that the Soviet leader was dead. His book entitled I Photograph Russia was published in 1934.
While working in Europe, Abbe traveled constantly and called himself "the tramp photographer." He submitted his work to major publications such as London Magazine, theBerliner Illustrire Zeitung, and the French magazine VU. These periodicals were early prototypes of LIFE Magazine in that they featured lengthy stories with multiple illustrations that came to be known as "candids." As an early practitioner of documentary reportage, Abbe was a trendsetter.
"James Abbe Photographer" is on view in Alice R. and Sol B. Frank Photography Galleries through November 5, 2000. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition with texts by Brooks Johnson, curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art, and Terence Pepper, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London.