The National Portrait Gallery recently opened a pair of shows, Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer and Edward Steichen: Portraits, which combine to weave a single portrait of American cultural life in the early decades of the twentieth century. Though Steichen is the much better known photographer, Ben-Yusuf’s work is equally compelling, and together the two exhibitions portray a range of politicians, actors, writers, musicians and other important figures, giving us a glimpse back into time.
Edward Steichen: Portraits highlights the rich holdings of the Gallery, since all of the pictures are part of the permanent collection. The photographs are divided into two categories: the early soft-focus portraits he took when he was just coming to the medium (he was a painter before he got into photography) and those he took for Vanity Fair. Steichen was the chief photographer for the magazine 1923 to 1936, and during this time he started to play more with shadow and light, using artificial lighting. His pictures help fuel America’s fascination with celebrity, and there are images of many important cultural figures, including Fred Astaire, Willa Cather, Charlie Chaplin (pictured), Joan Crawford, Paul Robeson and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer is the result of a great deal of research by assistant curator of photographs, Frank A. Goodyear III. As there has never been a show of this kind of Ben-Yusuf’s photography, it’s wonderful to see a substantial amount of her work — 50 photographs — on display. Ben-Yusuf, who had a studio in New York, helped raise photography to an art, and her photographs depict notable Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Ben-Yusuf exhibit is divided into six sections, among the most notable being The Old Guard, which includes portraits of old New Yorkers, including William Dean Howells and Daniel Chester French, and The New York Stage, portraits that were commissioned by theaters and that capture the drama actors and actresses brought to the stage. Also worth noting is a wonderful portrait of Edith Wharton, which was taken three years before her first novel was published, and which was buried in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Image and text by DCist, USA