Zaida Ben-Yusuf (1869-1933) was a leader in the art of photographic portraiture in turn-of-the-century New York. She operated – for ten years beginning in 1897 – arguably the most fashionable portrait studio on Fifth Avenue, while at the same time contributing work to numerous publications and the period’s most important photography exhibitions. As a testament to her renown, she served as a spokesperson for the Eastman Kodak Company and was regularly profiled in newspapers and magazines. Yet the memory of her achievement as a photographer has largely vanished.
Born in London, Ben-Yusuf settled in New York in 1895. There she took up photography, first as a hobby and then two years later as a profession. Rather than falling back on traditional portrait conventions – painted backdrops and contrived poses – she sought inspiration from the leading artists and pictorial photographers of the period. Despite her young age and her recent arrival in America, she attracted to her studio many of the era’s most prominent artistic, literary, theatrical, and political figures. Seen together, these individuals represent a remarkable cross-section of a place that was rapidly becoming America’s first modern city. Yet, like many professional women, she encountered personal and economic difficulties that ultimately compelled her to abandon photography. Although she later pursued with equal ambition a career in the fashion trade, it is her photographic work – and the men and women she portrayed – that we aim to recover in this exhibition.
Although Zaida Ben-Yusuf was principally a commercial photographer who depended on customers to make ends meet, the subject she photographed most often was herself. As a young woman with aspirations of artistic fame and professional success, Ben-Yusuf found that creating self-portraits provided an opportunity to experiment with both the art of portraiture and her own feminine persona. Rendered in a narrow vertical format, this early self-portrait (3) is striking for the costume she wears and the pose she adopts. Few photographers during this period – male or female – devoted such energy to their self-representation. Such images also gave the newly arrived Ben-Yusuf a much-needed identity—one that would lesson her sense of displacement and would attract attention to her art. Ben-Yusuf was pleased with this self-portrait, for it became the likeness of her that was most often reproduced and exhibited during her career.
The New Woman
Ben-Yusuf was the epitome of the “New Woman” – a class of predominantly younger women who at the century’s end sought to challenge prevailing gender norms. It was not simply her bohemian appearance; what differentiated Ben-Yusuf from the majority of women during this period was her desire for an independent life within the public arena. As a single woman who needed to earn an income, she embraced portrait photography as a career. This work opened up a host of opportunities – to write, to travel, to meet new people. Yet the growingindependence of women also elicited criticism at times and led figures like Ben-Yusuf to scrutinize their own sense of identity. The photographs in this first section are less representative of the commercial portraiture that sustained her financially. Instead, they speak to her artistic ambitions and her experiences as a “New Woman.”
The New York Stage
In 1900 New York supported no less than thirty reputable theaters, making it far and away the leading city for the dramatic arts in America. This period was marked by important changes within the theater industry. Electricity’s introduction at the Lyceum Theater in 1885 ushered in a new era, as did innovations in set design and methods of acting. Also important to the theater’s growth was the revolution then unfolding in the larger world of celebrity culture. Big-name stars had long dominated the New York stage; however, the proliferation of illustrated publications only heightened their profile further. Ben-Yusuf was among those who took advantage of the demand for portraits, and reproductions of her images appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines. Yet, unlike many commercial photographers, Ben-Yusuf created likenesses that captured a subject’s individuality in a style that was modern, not melodramatic.
Quotes from “Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer” at NPG, Smithsonian Institution