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Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer, by Frank H. Goodyear III, London and New York.Merrell, 2008

Exhibition:National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, April-September 2008.

ISBN 978-1-8589-4439-5 Hardback 240 pages, 28 x 21.2 cm, 110 illustrations

Reviewed by Dr Rob Macdonald, Reader in Architecture, Liverpool John Moores University.

Book jacket

Click on the images in the review to see a larger version

This is a beautiful book, from the fly cover image of Miss Ben-Yusef to the photograph of the aviator Alberto Santos- Dumont. The cover announces a private view of photographs at her studio on 578 Fifth Avenue New York City and the pleasure of your presence is desired. For a decade during the early years of the twentieth century, Zaida Ben-Yusuf (1869-1933) developed a dynamic career as a photographic portraitist of great originality.

This book is a rediscovery and celebration of Ben -Yusuf’s life and works; a photographic career built at the intersection of the new photography itself and of the situation-New York City. Zaida Ben-Yusuf straddled various cultural barriers as a woman and as a foreigner. She was both British and Algerian in origin, female and an exotic bohemian in the City. Her photographs featured many important figures who lived or visited New York City and she brought into focus different cultural and political networks that made up American’s largest city at the dawn of the new century.

Portrait of Miss Ben Yussef ©National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution,Washington, D.C.In the 1860’s Ben - Yusef had taken up photography as a pastime for amusement and met George Davison in London and he suggested that she should make more photographs. Davidson was an important British landscape photographer and he encouraged Ben - Yusef to submit work to the 1896 ‘Linked Ring Salon’ Exhibition.

Her early work was compared with  the impressionistic paintings of Whistler. Davidson encouraged Ben -Yusef’s soft focus aesthetic that shared attributes with impressionism.

In 1896 Ben-Yusef returned to New York and settled in a Fifth Avenue apartment about ten blocks south of her previous location. This was a time when artists increased their effects to carve out unique and marketable identities for themselves within the larger consumer culture. In addition to dress and behaviour, the studio was the locus for making one’s mark. Her photographs featured in the new artistic magazines and four of her works were accepted by ‘The Glasgow International Exhibition’. Such exhibitions enabled Zaida to build a reputation not only for her  commercial studio, but also among the community of New York photographers who were working to advance the new photography as a fine art medium.

Zaida’s photography was influenced by new trends of aestheticism and the arts and crafts movement. In the realm of portraiture photographers drew upon lessons of modern painters such as James McNeill Whistler. Those photographers who adopted the new approach chose images that favoured such formal elements as shape, line and tone over concern for detail.

Theodore Roosevelt © Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,Prints & Photographs DivisionBen-Yusef’s ten year career coincided with a period of unprecedented change and renewed optimism. At the turn of the century New York emerged as America’s first truly modern city and with the binding together of the five boroughs in 1898 it also became the second largest city in the world. The rapid influx of a wealth of new residents, many from overseas; the construction of new buildings and transportation and the expansion of business and industry were were all responsible for reshaping the city’s physical, political and cultural landscape.

In her studio on Fifth Avenue Ben-Yusef photographed many of the most prominent men and women of her day. Seen together, her photographs throw light on this stage in the cities history; a moment in which New York stood at a crossroads between the old and the new, modern photographs of modern people in a modern city eg; the New Women, Rooseveld Men, the Old Guards and Young Moderns.

New York as Crossroads

Miss Ben-Yusuf Announces a Private View of Photographs © The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Guy BullockZaida Ben-Yusef, Portrait Photographer speaks of New Yorks importance as a destination and a meeting point for an international set of writers, artists and explorers.

This book will interest those readers who are concerned with culture of personality in early twentieth century New York. It showcases many of Ben –Yusefs beautiful photographs and should not be missed by any cultural New Yorkers.

Further reading

To compare Zaida's work with a more recent portrait of New York society, read Loretta Cremmins's article on Alice Neel's portaits of women in the 1970's.

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