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Adolph de Meyer

Time Period: 
80 West 40th Street, Manhattan

Baron de Meyer, the famous creator of American fashion photography, so greatly mystified his origins that any remark about his forbearers, his rise in society, or his establishment as a photographic artist is suspect. His title was German as was his Jewish father, Adolphus Meyer. His mother was Scottish. He was born into wealth andĀ educated in Germany (though he claimed French nativity). He gravitated toward London during the 1890s where his exquisite taste, fortune, and homosexuality brought him into the orbit of the Prince of Wales, whose retinue cultivated both the arts and unconventional manners.

In London, he entered into a "'marriage" with Olga Caracciolo, reputedly the illegitimate daughter of Edward VII, Prince of Wales, who acknowledged her only in the role of godfather. World War I destroyed the de Meyer family fortune, forcing Adolph and Olga to the United States where he contracted to be chief photographer for Conde Nast's publications Vogue and Vanity Fair.

De Meyer's title, his social connections, his manners, and his taste made him an instant sensation in New York, Newport, and Boston. In de Meyer's images, artistry and commerce joined, refuting the Secessionist doctrine that only amateurism insured visual sensitivity and liberty of expression. While the early de Meyer photographs tended to be of society women, the later images presented theatrical personalities and dancers. These images would exert influence of a number of artists, particularly Ira L. Hill, Charlotte Fairchild, and Frank E. Geisler. Yet there was a quality of impersonality to the images, a sense of persons being sublimed into statues, that strove against the aesthetic currents swirling in the conjunction of theater and photography. The emergence of the photography of Alfred Cheney Johnston, James Abbe, and Nickolas Muray in the early 1920s was certainly a reaction to de Meyer's vision.

In the 1890s, de Meyer absorbed the pictorialist aesthetics of the international art photography movement, exhibited portraits, and was invited to join the international association of art photographers, The Linked Ring. Gravures of his photography appeared in Camera Work.

De Meyer's growing sense of distance from the artistic purposes of the new photographers appearing in Vanity Fair contributed to his decision in 1922 to accept the offer of Harper's Bazaar to become its chief photographer in Paris. De Meyer departed, and spent the next sixteen years trying to make visual peace with the rising tide of modernism. When forced back into the United States by the political turmoil prior to World War II, he was a relic. Yet his conception of fashion photography thrived in the work of aesthetic offspring such as George Hoyningen-Huene, Cecil Beaton, and Horst P. Horst.

Few prints survive, and his negatives, except those in the Conde Nast archive, were destroyed on the eve of World War II.

NOTES: De Meyer's art has been appreciated in three monographs: De Meyer, A Singular Elegance, and Of Passions and Tenderness. David S. Shields/ALS


De Meyer'sĀ encounter with the Ballet Russe, with its exoticism, integral conception of aesthetic effect, and its experimentalism jolted de Meyer from his prettiness. His portraits of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky began to explore the beautiful in terms of the uncanny, rather than the indistinct, the usual mode of pictorialist abstraction. At Vogue and Vanity Fair, de Meyer seized the opportunity given him, filling the pages with images remarkable for their design, lighting (he was the first to under-spot faces in conjunction with back-lighting), and detail. The photographs dramatized poise, and were remarkable for their stillness and composure. De Meyer concurrently undertook careers in the fields of clothing design and interior decoration, so that certain of his pictures were suites in which his creative intelligence was reflected in every feature. One element of his photographic arts was the projection of domestic interiors as utopias of taste. Often furniture has as much artistic meaning in a de Meyer scene as a sitter.