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Vaudevisuals Bookshelf ~ ‘Limelight – Photographs of James Abbe’ in Time

A pioneering photographer of the early cinema, James Abbe captured the spirit of entertainment in New York, Hollywood and Europe in the 1920s with his magically-lit portraits of the stars of screen and stage. A unique album of show business personalities, this book brings together Abbe’s iconic images of silent movie stars, his exuberant studies of revues at the Folies Bergere, and his fascinating record of early British cinema. Concluding with his reportage of the turbulent politics of the 1930s, Limelight encapsulates an era through one man’s brilliant career.

Billie Burke ~ 1920

Born in Alfred, Maine, James Abbe’s boyhood took place in Portsmouth, Virginia. His family owned the most important bookstore in that maritime city. At its counter James sold his photographs of ship launchings and arrivals taken with an inexpensive camera. Saturated with the print culture of the period, Abbe realized that photography was underutilized as illustration in American periodicals. He began placing photo illustrations with magazines in 1916. In 1917 he moved to New York City.

A sociable, witty man, Abbe had little trouble placing photographs in periodicals, but his break into the world of theatrical photography took place when he made a number of memorable portraits of the Barrymore brothers on stage in costume during dress rehearsals for “The Jest” in 1919. Abbe became fascinated with the nascent movie industry. He did portrait photography for several New York based cinema groups, especially for D.W. Griffith, and became the third New York based camera artist (after Karl Struss & Frank Bangs) to venture to the West Coast and work as a lensman in Hollywood. He worked for Mack Sennett for several months, even directing a now-lost comic two reeler, and as a photographer for Photoplay for another several month stint. He was the first bicoastal entertainment photographer.

Abbe had a remarkable talent for inspiring trust in stars and Lillian Gish convinced him to come to Italy in 1923 to work as a lighting consultant and still photographer for “The White Sister.” He closed his Broadway studio, abandoned his wife and children, and moved to Italy. He spent the next period of his life in Europe, photographing movie and stage productions in Paris and London and working as a photojournalist. Several landmark photographs of Joseph Stalin in a trip into the Soviet Union during the late 1930s would make him a celebrity of news photography during the late 1930s. His book, I Photograph Russia, was one of the important volumes of early photojournalism. He signed his vintage prints with his last name in red crayon on the lower-left corner of his images. He used a credit stamp for publicity images. Despite the relatively short duration of his career on Broadway, he was one of the greatest portraitists of the great age of theatrical portrait photography.

Charlie Chaplin by James Abbe

Abbe’s theatrical work was one of three photographic specialties he cultivated during his career. He also became an expert movie still photographer in 1920 and an important photojournalist in the 1930s. Brought to New York by magazine publishers interested in his experiments for using photographs as illustrations for narratives, Abbe won overnight renown in 1919 for his stage portraits of performers in costume. Enhancing the available stage lighting with a battery of portable lamps, he made intensely vivid images suggestive of interrupted stories.

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Categories
Charlie Chaplin Cinema Film Photography

James Abbe – Celebrity Photographer 1920’s-30’s

James Abbe – 1883-1973

James Abbe deserves his place in the hall of fame of great photographers for the two important strands of his career: as portraitist to the glittering stars of the 1920’s world of theater and film, and as a pioneer American Photojournalist observing firsthand the dramatically changing European cultural and political situation in his various travels throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.

Abbe was lured to the limelight of the east and west coast film studios of America and the theater stages of New York, London and Paris. In each place, he managed to encapsulate the illusions of performance into still visions of enchantment.

Russian film director Serge Eisenstein 1927  ©2019 James Abbe Archive

The first film star Abbe photographed was Marguerite Clark. Although now more or less forgotten, Clark was one of the highest-paid and most popular stars of her day. The New York Times ranked his as one of “the big four”, her fame rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., all of whom Abbe also captured.

Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim ©2019 James Abbe Archive

Perhaps his most enduring relationship in the film world was with the Gish sisters. Lillian Gish is thought to be the greatest dramatic actress of the silent era, and her sister Dorothy, capable of a wide range of acting styles, was one of the greatest comediennes of the time.

Anna Pavlova ©2019 James Abbe Archives

Abbe visited Hollywood in 1920 and 1922 where he took portraits of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, and also directed a film for Mack Sennett. After working for seven months on location in Italy with Ronald Colman – Lillian Gish film ‘The White Sister“(1923), Abbe made his base in Paris. His main reputation as a theater photographer preceded him and soon he was gravitating towards the best in French theatre and revue, including the Dolly Sisters, and Mistinguette, introducing them to a worldwide audience through his picture syndication.

George Gershwin ©2019 James Abbe Archives

Abbe soon became one of the leading celebrity photographers of the 1920s and is best known for these iconic portraits of both cinema and stage. He quickly established an international reputation, appearing in Vanity Fair, Ladies Home Journal, Vogue, British Tatler, French Vu, and many other publications.

Throughout the 1920s, Abbe made regular trips back and forth between London, Paris, and London to photograph theatre and film-making activities. He also traveled to Spain, Germany, Russian, the USA, and Mexico as a correspondent.

Louise Brooks ©2019 James Abbe Archives

For more information and to view additional Abbe photographs go here!

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