Lotte Jacobi, Self-Portrait, Berlin, 1929
Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990) was born in Thorn, Prussia, in what is now Poland. When she was two years old, her family moved to nearby Posen. After Posen became part of Poland in 1921, the Jacobi family moved to Berlin and Lotte began her film and camera work, studying film at the University of Munich, while simultaneously attending the Bavarian State Academy of Photography.
Ruth Jacobi, Berlin, 1928
Photography ran in the Jacobi family. Lotte’s great-grandfather, Samuel Jacobi, visited Paris between 1839 and 1842, where he obtained a camera, a license, and some instruction from L.J.M. Daguerre and then returned to Thorn to set up a studio. He prospered at his trade and eventually passed the business on to his son, Alexander. Alexander, in turn, handed the business down to his three sons, the eldest of whom was Lotte’s father, Sigismund. Thus, there was always the expectation that Lotte would continue the family business. With such a heritage, she once commented, “I was to be a photographer and that was that.”
Lotte Jacobi, Peter Lorre, 1930. Best known for his villainous roles, actor Peter Lorre (né László Löwenstein, 1904-1964) became famous as the child murderer in Fritz Lang's first sound movie, M (1931). After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he went on to build a prominent film career in America, with roles in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and others.
After completing her formal studies, Jacobi entered the family business in 1927. During this same period (1926-27) she began her professional work as a photographer, and she also produced four films, the most important being “Portrait of the Artist,” a study of the German painter Josef Scharl.
Josef Scharl, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1942
From October of 1932 to January of 1933, Jacobi travelled to the Soviet Union, in particular to Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan, taking photographs of what she saw. She returned to Berlin in February 1933, one month after Hitler came to power. As persecution against Jews increased, Lotte left Germany with her son, arriving in New York City in September 1935 where she opened a studio in Manhattan. In 1940, Lotte married Erich Reiss, a distinguished German publisher and writer, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1951. During this time, she continued portrait photography at her studio, while also embarking upon an experimental type of photographic work that artist Leo Katz later named photogenics.
Lotte Jacobi, Lotte Lenya, c. 1930. Lenya, wife of composer Kurt Weill, became famous as Jenny in the first performance of The Threepenny Opera in 1928.
In 1955, Lotte left New York with her son and daughter-in-law and moved to Deering, New Hampshire. There she opened a new studio, where she both continued her own work and displayed works by other artists. She became interested in politics and was a fervent Democrat, representing New Hampshire at the Democratic National Convention in 1980. She travelled extensively (in the U.S., Europe, and Peru) and enjoyed new-found fame in the 1970s and 1980s. She died in 1990 at the age of 93.
Lotte Jacobi, Albert Einstein, 1938
Lotte Jacobi is best known for her photographic portraits, which act as a “chronicle of an era.” The list of her subjects reads like a who’s who of the 20th century: W.H. Auden, Martin Buber, Marc Chagall, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Käthe Kollwitz, Lotte Lenya, Peter Lorre, Thomas Mann, Max Planck, Eleanor Roosevelt, J.D. Salinger, Alfred Stieglitz, and Chaim Weizmann – to name but a few.
Lotte Jacobi, Käthe Kollwitz, c. 1930