A Critical Rescue Mission
For almost a decade I have been writing—and pushing to publish—the first accurate biography of the neglected photographer, Baron Adolph de Meyer (1868 – 1946). Justifiably deserving a high place in the history of photography, de Meyer was not only a pioneering fin de siècle Pictorialist but also the first professional fashion photographer. To quote Cecil Beaton, who admired him to the point (early in his own photographic career) of copying the Baron’s style:
I believe the work of de Meyer has never been estimated as highly as it warrants. In his last years it was treated with a supercilious scorn, then finally ignored. He died unnoticed and penniless in Hollywood, where his work was unknown, yet where every day in the studios the ‘still’ cameraman, as well as the film operators, was employing many of the tricks of the trade de Meyer had invented. In the realm of fashion photography he exerted greater influence than any other photographer; and in any issue of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar […] it is easy to point out a number of pictures which are derived directly from him.
So why did I, an independent critic, embark on this uphill, unfashionable, hardly lucrative quest to redeem his reputation? It was sheer cussedness—empowered in the early 2000s by those museum curators who, when fashion photography was still in the antechamber of what was collectible and admissible to the fine art pantheon, claimed it was impossible to unearth de Meyer’s real story. Even now de Meyer’s work remains a footnote for those curators and critics who typically regard his supremely glamorous diaphanous pictures as hopelessly outdated. I wanted to prove them wrong.
It took time. Scattered across Europe and America, buried in registrar offices, forgotten private and public archives, registries, libraries, museums, the internet, and old magazines, were the primary sources for the Baron’s real story. But only enough space exists here to recap a few details of this extraordinary career.
Born in Paris, de Meyer died forgotten in Hollywood in 1946. The years between comprise a rich and peripatetic tale, not only of the shift from amateur success (Stieglitz exhibited his work at 291 before 1912, as did almost every European photography exhibition) and social prominence to professional stardom. De Meyer’s grandfather was a Baltic baron and leading citizen of Dresden, his mother a Watson, the daughter of an ancient British aristocratic family, his wife Olga Caracciolo a notorious European beauty whose godfather was Edward VII. (French society painter Blanche, wrote that “when Olga entered the [Covent Garden] orchestra stalls, the opera glasses of everyone were focused on her, the most elegant woman in the audience; the most thoroughbred of cosmopolitan society.” She also became one of the greatest champion fencers in Europe.)
After the death of Edward VII, the de Meyers suffered financial reversals and relocated from London to Manhattan. Late in 1912 Condé Nast hired de Meyer for his social connections and exalted personal taste, as well as for his celebrated skills as a photographer. As Vogue’s first on-staff photographer (and as chief photographer for the brand new Vanity Fair) the elegant European transformed the magazines with his impeccably backlit images of the latest outfits from Paris as well as his flattering, beautifully lit portraits of society matrons and actresses. The couple’s talents, their legendary charm, often devastating wit, and appetite for creativity soon made them tastemakers to an international elite composed of not only of the gratin, but also of artists, musicians, and actors as well as personalities from the demi-monde.
In 1920 publisher William Randolph Hearst, who delighted in poaching talent from his rival Condé Nast, lured the Baron back to Paris with a fifteen-year contract paying triple his Vogue salary. De Meyer became chief photographer and Paris correspondent for Harper’s Bazaar. There he was one of the prime shapers of the fashion magazine for the next twelve years.
Olga died in January 1931 and Harper’s Bazaar’s new editor-in-chief Carmel Snow fired de Meyer in 1934. Only then did the bereaved photographer falter into caricature and fade into obscurity. By the late 1930s his work was considered passé; his elegant universe had vanished. He had lost money in the Depression. In despair, he destroyed most of his photographs when he gave up his Paris studio. He briefly roamed through Europe, finally settling in Hollywood in 1938. To make money there, he even turned to designing hats.
None of the fashion magazines would publish his now unfashionable work. But a few people in Los Angeles still appreciated his talent. In 1940 actor Edward G. Robinson and his wife Gladys organized an exhibition of Baron de Meyer’s photographs at their Brentwood mansion. It was the photographer’s underappreciated swan song. When he died in January 1946 his short obituary in the Los Angeles Examiner barely mentioned his distinguished artistic and photographic career. There is no marker for his ashes at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Part of the rewarding exhilaration of being a critic and art historian comes from pursuing such lost figures. But it is getting so much harder to reintroduce them to the culture. Some of the current frustration felt by the declining community of serious (and usually underpaid or unpaid) critics comes from the too frequent rejections from book and periodical publishers and editors reluctant to take on unproven subjects not ratified by mainstream demand and often requiring a budget for image reproduction. Self-publishing perhaps can provide a kind of answer, but it so far does not seem to aid in the preservation and discussion of serious visual culture. For that, all the professional players have to believe in the value of scholarship and culture, not just in what is currently trendy, politically correct, and/or marketable.