New York

Adolph de Meyer

Adolph de Meyer is largely remembered as a pictorialist photographer. He was a close friend of Gertrude Kasebier, and Alfred Stieglitz not only showed his work at the Photo-Secession Galleries in New York but also devoted two entire issues of Camera Work to his pictures. However, with the incredible ascendancy of fashion in recent times—we now have supermodels, though not superartists or superwriters—it should come as no surprise that this exhibition of de Meyer’s photography makes a convincing, intelligent argument for reevaluating the commercial work that he produced for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from about 1914 to 1932. Perhaps the exhibition even rescues de Meyer: today, being a forebear of Bruce Weber or Ellen von Unwerth is probably far more estimable than being a vassal in the mawkish Camelot of pictorialism.

The exhibition begins with the society portraiture and the pictorialist still lifes for which de Meyer is known. Works such as Water Lilies, ca. 1906, demonstrate the opalescent qualities of light that de Meyer excelled at manipulating: a glass tabletop and glass bowl filled with water and lilies are suffused with such luminescence that they look somewhat like the inside of an oyster. However, though de Meyer participated in the debates surrounding pictorialism, he really seemed to hold photography up to the standards not of painting but of theater. (His personal life might suggest this as well: a baron of dubious nobility, a German who made conflicting claims about his parentage, and a homosexual married to a famous beauty, de Meyer’s entire existence was enveloped in role-playing.) Lighting and staging were the key elements in his esthetic repertoire, as is evident in the well-known photograph Helen Lee Worthing, as She Appears in the Bridal Pageant in ‘What’s in a Name?’—as the caption in the August 1920 Vanity Fair put it. In the picture, de Meyer’s mannerist composition—it’s tempting to say set design—and signature backlighting, which causes the entire picture to glow as though it were mounted against a light box, suggest a histrionics of style and affect. It’s not just because the subject herself was a performer. The same criteria apply to a fashion shot in Vogue several months earlier, de Meyer’s wrought—or overwrought—portrait of Condé Nast’s young daughter, Natica, modeling a wedding dress by the designer Tappé: de Meyer treated every picture theatrically, as though each one were a publicity shot for some grandiose, gaudy, gorgeous production.

It was in his magazine work that de Meyer seems to have come into his own, setting aside the cause of photography as art simply to luxuriate in its artifice. In one of the many editorials he penned for Harper’s, de Meyer described spending a whole 1923 season in costume attending “fêtes of unsurpassed magnificence.” “I shall never be able to adequately express my disappointment when finally,” he writes, “after I had washed and scraped my face clean of all the paint, I realized reality, sordid reality, and that my viewpoint had merely been distorted.” Perhaps what made de Meyer’s photography great was that his theater was not Brechtian; reality never intruded. (Significantly, Harper’s replaced de Meyer in 1932 with Martin Munkacsi, who forsook the artifice of the studio and photographed models outdoors in natural light.) De Meyer’s career in fashion photography portrayed, paralleled, and preserved the boom of the ’20s but, visually at least, seemed to escape the crash.

Keith Seward