The odor of pomegranates

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Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: The odor of pomegranates (detail), 1899. Platinum print.
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Detail from ‘The odor of pomegranates’, ca. 1900. | original src Library of Congress

Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: The odor of pomegranates, 1899. Platinum photographic print mounted on dark green paper. Description: Photograph shows a woman wearing a long flowing gown, standing in front of curtain, facing left, holding a pomegranate. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: The odor of pomegranates, 1899. Platinum photographic print mounted on dark green paper. Description: Photograph shows a woman wearing a long flowing gown, standing in front of curtain, facing left, holding a pomegranate. | src Library of Congress

The Odor of Pomegranates is more than simply a portrait, the image represents Ben-Yusuf’s effort to use photography to explore a larger theme: in this case, the seductiveness and potential danger of something desirous.

Ben-Yusuf’s artistic explorations within the tradition of portraiture continued alongside her commercial work. One of the prints she felt was more successful was The Odor, a work that she exhibited on at least half a dozen occasions in the years immediately after its completion in 1899. No other photograph by her was displayed or reproduced as often. This…

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Zaida Ben-Yusuf

Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Selfportrait, 1899 | src NPG · Smithsonian Institution

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.

Miss Ben-Yusuf Announces a Private View of Photographs by Zaida Ben-Yusuf. Platinum print, 1899. The Museum of Modern Art, New York | src internet archive
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Self-portrait, undated, published 1901. | src Library of Congress

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.

Illustration showing a self-portrait of the photographer accompanying her article “The New Photography-What it has done and is doing for Modern Portraiture.” Published in: Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. XIV, no. III (Sept, 1901), p. 391. Halftone print.
A Study in Profile. Illustration showing a head and shoulders profile portrait photograph of a woman accompanying the photograher’s article “The New Photography-What it has done and is doing for Modern Portraiture.” Published in: Metropolitan Magazine, Sept, 1901.
Illustrations for article entitled “In Woman’s Realm: a remarkable woman photographer,” by Marion Barton, show five photographs taken by Zaida Ben-Yusuf. Left to right, from top left: A Model posed by Miss Ben-Yusef – Miss Ben-Yusef herself – Miss Schroeder-One of Miss Ben-Yusef’s sitters – Gustav Kobbe. Published in Illustrated American, v. 24, no. 19 (1898 Nov. 11), p. 377. | src L. of C

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.”

Illustration showing a portrait photograph of a young woman (actress Florence Kahn), which forms a part of a portfolio in the magazine called "Some Types of the Summer Girl." Published in Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. XIV, no. II (August, 1901) p. 160. | src LofC
Illustration showing a portrait photograph of a young woman (actress Florence Kahn), which forms a part of a portfolio in the magazine called “Some Types of the Summer Girl.” Published in Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. XIV, no. II (August, 1901) p. 160. | src LofC
Zaida Ben Yusuf :: Portrait of Miss S., ca. 1899-1900. Platinum Print. | src internet archive
Zaida Ben Yusuf :: Mrs. Fiske, "Love finds the way" / Photograph shows actress Minnie Madden Fiske, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front, 1896. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben Yusuf :: Mrs. Fiske, “Love finds the way” / Photograph shows actress Minnie Madden Fiske, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front, 1896. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben Yusuf :: Mrs. Fiske, "Love finds the way" / Photograph shows actress Minnie Madden Fiske, full-length portrait, seated, facing front, 1896. | src LofC
Zaida Ben Yusuf :: Mrs. Fiske, “Love finds the way” / Photograph shows actress Minnie Madden Fiske, full-length portrait, seated, facing front, 1896. | src Library of Congress

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.

Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Mrs. Fiske, ca. 1896. Photograph shows actress Minnie Madden Fiske, three-quarter length portrait, wearing coat and hat, facing front. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Mrs. Fiske, ca. 1896. Photograph shows actress Minnie Madden Fiske, three-quarter length portrait, wearing coat and hat, facing front. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Full-length portrait of actress Elsie Leslie in costume as Lydia Languish in Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals, 1899. Platinum print. Exhibited in: "The life and portrait photography of Zaida Ben-Yusuf" at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2008.
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Full-length portrait of actress Elsie Leslie in costume as Lydia Languish in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, 1899. Platinum print. [Library of Congress] Exhibited in: “The life and portrait photography of Zaida Ben-Yusuf” at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2008.
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Portrait of Miss. K. [Half-length portrait of actress Florence Kahn, seated, looking front.], ca. 1900. Gum bicromate print. Digital file from color film copy transparency. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Portrait of Miss. K. [Half-length portrait of actress Florence Kahn, seated, looking front.], ca. 1900. Gum bicromate print. Digital file from color film copy transparency. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Portrait of Miss. K. [Half-length portrait of actress Florence Kahn, seated, looking front.], ca. 1900. Gum bicromate print. Digital file from color film copy transparency. | src Library of Congress
Pearl Benton as a Chinese idol in “San Toy”. Photo by Miss Ben Yusuf. Halftone print. Illustration showing a portrait of Pearl Benton dressed in an Asian costume portraying a character in the musical “San Toy.” The photograph is surrounded by a decorative “frame” and forms a part of a portfolio called “A Mosaic of Femininity & Verse.” Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. 13, no. 3 (March, 1901) p. 295. | src Library of Congress

Quotes from “Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer” at NPG, Smithsonian Institution

The odor of pomegranates

Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: The odor of pomegranates (detail), 1899. Platinum print.
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: Detail from ‘The odor of pomegranates’, ca. 1900. | original src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: The odor of pomegranates, 1899. Platinum photographic print mounted on dark green paper. Description: Photograph shows a woman wearing a long flowing gown, standing in front of curtain, facing left, holding a pomegranate. | src Library of Congress
Zaida Ben-Yusuf :: The odor of pomegranates, 1899. Platinum photographic print mounted on dark green paper. Description: Photograph shows a woman wearing a long flowing gown, standing in front of curtain, facing left, holding a pomegranate. | src Library of Congress

The Odor of Pomegranates is more than simply a portrait, the image represents Ben-Yusuf’s effort to use photography to explore a larger theme: in this case, the seductiveness and potential danger of something desirous.

Ben-Yusuf’s artistic explorations within the tradition of portraiture continued alongside her commercial work. One of the prints she felt was more successful was The Odor, a work that she exhibited on at least half a dozen occasions in the years immediately after its completion in 1899. No other photograph by her was displayed or reproduced as often. This portrait shows an unidentified young woman holding a pomegranate only inches before her face. The subject is dressed in an ornately decorated garment and stands erect in profile against a similarly patterned fabric that serves as the backdrop for the photograph. A string of pearls is interwoven in her hair. As the photographer and critic Joseph Keiley observed in his review of this “especially striking” image, “the figure was posed against a darker piece of heavy oriental drapery, figured with curved lines that resembled writhing serpents, and into which the draped figure almost melted.” Others, including the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, also commented on Ben-Yusuf’s effort to meld the her subject into the folds of the backdrop. The effect of this compositional strategy is a radical flattening of the picture plane so that the figure appears like a mythological personage carved on to a frieze. Capturing likeness is not the goal of the composition; instead, Ben-Yusuf is more concerned with the larger creative possibilities of photography. (…)
Ben-Yusuf was closely allied with those [photographers] who saw photography as a medium of artistic expression. To her and other like-minded practitioners, much could be learned from the world of the fine arts and literature, and this new class of photographers went to great lengths to create prints that incorporated this lessons. As the scholar Naomi Rosenblum has shown, The Odor of Pomegranates owes much stylistically to such works as John White Alexander’s painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil [image below]. Ben-Yusuf admired Alexander, and two years later completed a series of portraits of the artist. In its subject matter, its composition, and its presentation, Ben-Yusuf’s image reveals the influence of the late nineteenth-century avant-garde. (…)
In The Odor of Pomegranates, Ben-Yusuf herself experiments with creating a photographic portrait that is as much about Classical mythology as it is about modern life. The pomegranate that the woman holds before her provides a key to unlocking the work’s larger symbolism. An odorless fruit, the pomegranate has long been a popular subject for artists and poets, many of whom have seen it as a symbol of the Resurrection. In Greek mythology, it figures prominently in the story of Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Zeus and Demeter, whose eating of a pomegranate given to her by Hades bound her for part of the year in the underworld over which he reigned. During those months, Demeter -the goddess of harvest- refused to allow anything to grow, and thus winter began. Ben-Yusuf depicts her Persephone-like figure observing closely -even contemplating- the fruit before her. Its “odor” relates not to its smell, but rather the tantalizing expectation that precedes the act of consuming the pomegranate.
Ben-Yusuf’s The Odor of Pomegranates is a departure from the professional photography that typically occupied her. Not concerned with capturing a sitter’s individuality, she explores in this portrait a more universal theme: the seductiveness and potential danger of something desirable. (…)
Although the long hair of Ben-Yusuf’s subject hides her eyes, it appears that this woman stares out at the pomegranate she holds as if pondering whether to act. Her other arm rises upward in a gesture that suggests a certain hesitation. The Odor of Pomegranates captures the tense moment of decision.
Quoted from: Goodyear, Frank H., III: Zaida Ben-Yusuf : New York portrait photographer. London : Merrell (2008) Published in association with the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The book is available at internet archive

John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915) :: Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1897. Oil on canvas. | src MFA · Boston
John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915) :: Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1897. Oil on canvas. | src MFA · Boston

Isabella, or The Pot of Basil was a poem written in 1820 by the English poet John Keats, who borrowed his narrative from the Italian Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio. Isabella was a Florentine merchant’s beautiful daughter whose ambitious brothers disapproved of her romance with the handsome but humbly born Lorenzo, their father’s business manager. The brothers murdered Lorenzo and told their sister that he had traveled abroad. The distraught Isabella began to decline, wasting away from grief and sadness. She saw the crime in a dream and then went to find her lover’s body in the forest. Taking Lorenzo’s head, she bathed it with her tears and finally hid it in a pot in which she planted sweet basil, a plant associated with lovers.

Alexander used theatrical effects to render this grim scene, isolating Isabella in a shallow niche and lighting her from below, as if she were an actor on a stage illuminated only with footlights. This eerie light, the cold monochromatic palette, and the sensuous curves of Isabella’s gown all draw the viewer’s eye to the loving attention Isabella gives the pot, which she gently caresses. Isabella seems lost in an erotic spectral trance, oblivious to the world and to observers. With his strange subject, Alexander created an extraordinary and mysterious image of love gone awry.

quoted from MFA and the text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting