Who Is Lotte Jacobi?
Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990)
“It is certainly a good thing that there is a Jacobi to photograph the janitors, the presidents, the stage and movie stars, the labor leaders, the forest, the rivers, the animals, the high buildings, and the customs of America.
—Hubertus Prinz zu Löwenstein (quoted in Atelier 174)
Lotte Jacobi, Self-Portrait, Berlin, 1929
In 1941, Hubertus Prinz zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, the German historian, politician, and staunch opponent of Adolf Hitler, paid tribute to Lotte Jacobi on the occasion of the centennial celebration in New York of the Jacobi family’s photography studio. The Prince succinctly summed up the variety of Lotte’s subjects, as well as her adaptability. The life of the German-American photographer, Johanna Alexandra “Lotte” Jacobi, traversed numerous cultures and turbulent periods in the twentieth century. Born to a Jewish family in Thorn, West Prussia (now Toruń, Poland), on August 17, 1896, Jacobi launched her career in Berlin in the 1920s. An eye-witness to history, she subsequently traveled to many countries: through Europe, the USSR, and later, at age eighty-one, to Peru. In 1935, she immigrated to New York, and she died in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1990. The people she met, the places she visited, and events she experienced along this fascinating journey became the subjects of Lotte Jacobi’s striking photographs.
Lotte Jacobi is best known for the legendary portraits she made in Germany and the United States of important artists, writers, actors, intellectuals, politicians, and scientists. These include Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall, Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham and W.E.B. Du Bois, to name only a few. Jacobi’s photographs are important records of Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s; New York from the 1930s to the 1950s; and rural New Hampshire from the 1950s through the 1980s. Because Jacobi’s photographs from the USSR are less well known, they are presented on this website to highlight the historic importance of this intrepid photographer.
Jacobi was a fourth-generation photographer who began working in the family's photography studio in Berlin in the 1920s. “I was to be a photographer and that was that,” Jacobi later explained. “It did everything for me. I love people” (Wise 8). According to Jacobi, her great-grandfather, Samuel Jacobi, started it off on a trip to Paris around 1840 by obtaining a camera, a patent, and instructions from Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography (Mitchell 140). Her grandfather, father, two uncles, and sister followed in this career path as well. Jacobi was interested in photography from an early age, building a pin-hole camera with her father, Sigismund, at age twelve, and acquiring her first camera at thirteen.
Despite what seemed to be a preordained career in photography, Jacobi’s early life took a more circuitous route. First, she aspired to be an actress, a farmer, or a beekeeper. Plans for her to learn photography from a relative in London evaporated during World War I. Instead, Jacobi studied art history and literature in Posen (today Poznań, Poland), where her father had moved the family in 1898 to run a branch of the business. Her studies were further waylaid by her marriage in 1916 to Siegbert Fritz Honig and the birth of her son Jochen the following year. Because Posen was returned to Poland after the war, Jacobi moved with her husband and son to Berlin in 1920, and her parents, Maria (Mia) and Sigismund, her sister Ruth (1899-1995), and her brother Alexander (1902-1921) moved there as well in 1921.
Atelier Jacobi, Berlin
Lotte Jacobi, Lotte Lenya, Berlin, 1928
At first, opening the new Atelier Jacobi in Berlin necessitated Lotte’s help to get it started, but in 1925, she went to Munich to study photography and cinematography at the Staatliche Höhere Fachschule für Phototechnik (State Higher Academy for Photo-Technology). Two years later and newly divorced, Jacobi returned to her family’s business in Berlin: helping to manage it, making portraits in and outside the studio, and shifting part of the business into photo-journalism. Her early love of theater and film didn’t leave her: using her newly-learned skills in cinematic lighting, she made many innovative photographs of avant-garde actors and dancers in theaters, their homes, and in the Jacobi studio. These photographs depicted both the already established and the up-and-coming. The Jacobi atelier became a busy meeting place in Berlin, at the time a cultural mecca for artists, dancers, writers, and politicians.
Lotte Jacobi, Pauline Koner, New York, ca. 1940
Energetic and curious, in August 1932 to February 1933, Jacobi went to the USSR for five months, the trip that is the focus of this website and that is discussed in additional essays (see links below). She traveled by train from Berlin to Moscow, and then on to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. As has been stressed by Maria Gough, this was at least in part to expand the Jacobi photographic stock in travel photography, for by the early 1930s, the atelier had evolved to become a supplier to the growing number of illustrated newspapers and magazines (Gough 66-67). However, upon her return to Berlin, Jacobi was unable to market her USSR photographs. Hitler had come to power, and the Jewish Jacobi family was forced to close their studio.
Thus, after her father died in 1935, Lotte Jacobi immigrated to New York, where she began again. At first, she worked with her sister Ruth Jacobi Roth, who had immigrated to the US several months earlier. Then, Jacobi established her own studio at 24 Central Park South the following year, when her mother and son arrived. Building her business in a new country still in the midst of the Depression was difficult, especially for an émigré woman photographer, and she was also occupied with reestablishing her family. Despite frequent attempts with only modest success—a few of her photographs were published in the New York Herald Tribune, US Camera, and Life—she was not able to fully support herself and her family in photojournalism in her adopted home.
Lotte Jacobi, Mark Chagall and His Daughter Ida, New York, 1945
Nevertheless, in New York Jacobi persisted, concentrating again on portraiture. One promising commission in 1939 from Life magazine was to take a series of photographs of Albert Einstein, on his recommendation (Goldberg 26). One of the first faculty members at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, Jacobi had previously photographed Einstein in Berlin. But, in the end, Life rejected them, finding that her photographs of the casually dressed Einstein—at home, sailing, talking to colleagues—were not appropriate for such an iconic figure. This, of course, was one of Jacobi’s great gifts: in portraits she connected with her subjects in ways that were natural and penetrating, seemingly unposed.
Life with Erich Reiss
Lotte Jacobi, Eric Reiss, 1940
While she said that she made a number of American friends—the photographers Bernice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz, and Barbara Morgan among them—Jacobi immersed herself in a circle of émigrés in New York. In the late 1930s, she worked with the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom, founded by Hubertus Prinz zu Löwenstein in 1937, to bring German émigrés to the US and help them get established (Atelier 150). In the spring of 1940, Egon Erwin Kisch, Jacobi’s Czechoslovak journalist friend from Berlin, introduced Jacobi to another German Jewish émigré, the publisher Erich Reiss (1887-1951). In Germany, Reiss had published Kisch’s books on Russia in 1927 and Central Asia in 1932. In the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht) of 1938, Reiss was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but with the help of the Danish writer Karin Michaëlis, he was released and lived for a while in Sweden before coming to New York in 1939 (“Something that provokes” 17).
Though it had been repeatedly suggested by their mutual friends that they should meet, it is a shame that Reiss and Jacobi hadn’t done so when they both lived in Berlin. Had they gotten together then, he might have been able to leave Germany with her in 1935, rather than suffering the long-term effects of the physical abuse he received in the concentration camp. In New York, they bonded immediately and were married on October 7, 1940. Unlike her first, this was a very happy and supportive marriage. Jacobi and Reiss, who had published the works of many avant-garde writers in Berlin, shared many experiences and interests, including literature, art, and the theater. The newlyweds moved to 46 West 52nd Street in New York, an area full of artists, writers, galleries, and theaters, much like the location of the Jacobi atelier in Berlin. Reiss took over the business side of her studio, managing the books and thinking up clever marketing schemes.
Out of this union came a unusual body of work for Jacobi, her abstract “photogenics.” In 1947, her friend Leo Katz, a Czech-American artist, taught Jacobi and Reiss the technique of making photograms, or cameraless photographs, as a diversion when Reiss was ill and needed to stay in their apartment. Jacobi became obsessed with moving a light source over photographic paper, which a few others had done before, most notably her friend the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s at the Bauhaus in Germany. “The experience was a marvel,” Jacobi said. “With the photogenics I felt young again” (Wise 12). The result is a series of beautiful, ethereal abstract images, very unlike anything she had created before.
After Erich Reiss died on May 8, 1951, Jacobi found new projects, and within a few years, she moved out of New York. She started the Lotte Jacobi Gallery in her studio, where she exhibited her own photographs and works by little-known photographers and artists, with an exception being Louise Nevelson. She also studied printmaking with Leo Katz. However, in 1955 she closed up shop, left New York, and moved to Deering, New Hampshire, to live with her son John F. Hunter (he changed his name from Jochen Honig when he came to the US ) and daughter-in-law, Beatrice Trum Hunter. In 1962, Jacobi moved to an apartment in Deering, and John built her a studio. She became involved in taking landscape photographs, as well as continuing to make portraits, in addition to gardening and beekeeping. She took courses in printmaking, French, horticulture, and television (!) at the University of New Hampshire, where she received an honorary degree in 1973.
Lotte Jacobi, Robert Frost, Ripton, Vermont, 1959
Almost three decades after she immigrated to the US, Jacobi returned to Europe in September 1962. She went to her birthplace in Toruń, Poland, and to Berlin to visit friends. After traveling through Italy, she ended up in Paris, where she studied printmaking for around four months with Stanley Hayter, the founder of Atelier 17 and the mentor of Leo Katz (Fasanelli 25). When Jacobi returned from Europe after a six-month tour, she moved into her new studio with her recently acquired printing press (Atelier 140-141). As she had in New York after her husband’s death, Jacobi opened a gallery in the studio, the Lotte Jacobi Place, where once again she exhibited work by artists and photographers who she thought needed more attention. She became involved in town meetings, protested against the Vietnam War and nuclear energy. She served as a New Hampshire delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention when Jimmy Carter received the nomination for president. A political outsider in Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, New York during World War II and the McCarthy hearings, Jacobi at last found a political home in New Hampshire, of all places.
A remarkable world traveler with an impressive body of work, Jacobi only found the recognition that she deserved later in life. The New York art scene, including Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, and other major museums all but ignored her (though Steichen liked her photogenics). Was this because she was a Jewish immigrant? A feisty woman photographer? Once she moved to New Hampshire, there were numerous small solo and group exhibitions of Jacobi’s work, mostly in New England. For a time, she found more respect in Germany among museum professionals and photographers, such as the Germans Albert Renger-Patzsch and Otto Steinert, both of whom she visited on her trip to Europe in 1962-63. Exhibitions in Germany at the Staatliche Landesbildstelle, Hamburg, in 1972 and at the Folkwang Museum, Essen, in 1973 followed, as well as a later one at the Folkwang Museum organized by Ute Eskildsen in 1990. An exception in the United States has been the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, which presented the first one-person show of her work in 1959. At the Currier, Jacobi became a curatorial advisor and helped set up its photography department. In 2003-2004, a solo exhibition organized by the Currier traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York and the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.
Scholarship on Jacobi picked up toward the end of her life. Interviews with her by Ute Eskildsen and Sally Ann Stein (1977), James Fasanelli (1978), Vicki Goldberg (1979), and Margaretta Mitchell (1979) provide key information needed to piece together Jacobi’s biography and her thoughts on her career. Extremely important for the recognition of Jacobi’s work has been the groundbreaking, meticulously researched book by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, Lotte Atelier Jacobi: Berlin New York (1997). In addition to excellent reproductions, their book contextualizes Jacobi’s life and career through their earlier interviews with Jacobi and historical and archival research, including in the Lotte Jacobi Collection at the University of New Hampshire.
Beckers and Moortgat’s book accompanied the exhibition they organized at Das Verborgene Museum (The Hidden Museum), which they founded in Berlin “to publicize the life's work and biographies of women artists who have fallen into obscurity for various reasons” (Das Verborgene Museum). After Berlin, their Jacobi exhibition traveled to Aachen and Regensburg, Germany. In terms of studies of Jacobi’s work from the USSR, Beckers and Moortgat were again pioneers. They exhibited her USSR photographs at their museum, with an accompanying catalogue, in 1989. More recently, Rose-Carol Washton Long focused on Jacobi’s portraits of Tajik and Uzbek women in 2019, while Maria Gough published the most extensive analysis to date of Jacobi’s trip to the USSR in 2020.
Lotte Jacobi was often at the center of history in the making and the cultural life of wherever she lived or traveled. This can be seen in the photographs she took of a wide range of subjects, now to much acclaim. No matter where she lived—Berlin, New York, Deering—Jacobi welcomed artists, writers, politicians, and friends into her home and studio. Younger photographers appreciated her generosity and mentorship, art historians and curators respected her body of work. All appreciated her fine mind, accomplished career, historical perspective, and sense of humor.
Contributor: Eleanor Hight
Beckers, Marion and Elisabeth Moortgat. Atelier Lotte Jacobi, Berlin, New York . Berlin: Verborgene Museum, 1997.
Beckers, Marion and Elisabeth Moortgat. Russland 1932/33: Moskau, Tadschikistan, Usbekistan. Berlin: Nishen, 1989.
Fasanelli, James A. “Lotte Jacobi: Photographer.” In Kelly Wise, Ed., Lotte Jacobi (Danbury, NH: Addison House, 1978): 14-28.
Goldberg, Vicki. “Lotte Jacobi.” American Photography (March 1979): pp. 22–31.
Gough, Maria. "Portrait Under Construction: Lotte Jacobi in Soviet Russia and Central Asia." October 173: 65-117.
Jacobi, Lotte. “Something that provokes…like a negative.” Excerpts from the transcript of an interview with Ute Eskildsen and Sally Ann Stein, Deering, NH, July 20-22, 1977. Transcribed by Margit Kleinman, 1990. German translation by Margit Kleinman, “Etwas, das herausfordert . . . wie ein Negativ,” in Ute Eskildsen, Lotte Jacobi, 1896–1990 (Essen: Museum Folkwang, 1990): 6–15. Many thanks to Sally Stein for supplying a copy of the English version.
Jüdisches Museum, Berlin. Ruth Jacobi: Fotografien. Berlin: Jüdisches Museum, 2008.
Lotte Jacobi: Theatre and Dance Photographs, with an introduction by Cornell Capa. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1982.
Mitchell, Margaretta K. Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. New York: The Viking Press, 1979.
Das Verborgene Museum (The Hidden Museum). https://www.dasverborgenemuseum.de/the-museum
Washton Long, Rose-Carol. “Dangerous Portraits? Lotte Jacobi’s Photos of Uzbek and Tajik Women,” Woman’s Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2019: 14-23.
Wise, Kelly, Ed. Lotte Jacobi. Danbury, NH: Addison House, 1978.