Lotte Jacobi (August 17, 1896 – May 6, 1990) was a leading American portrait photographer and photojournalist, known for her high-contrast black-and-white portrait photography, characterized by intimate, sometimes dramatic, sometimes idiosyncratic and often definitive humanist depictions of both ordinary people in the United States and Europe and some of the most important artists, thinkers and activists of the 20th century.
Jacobi’s photographic style stressed informality, and sought to delve deeper into the traits of her subjects than traditional portraiture. She made a point of photographing subjects in their own environments, and talking to them while she worked. She explained the reasoning behind her approach this way:
“I just try and get people to talk, to relax, to be themselves. I don’t like a passive, bored subject. I do portraits because I like people, and I want to bring out their personalities. Many photographers today, I think, are bringing out the worst part of people. I try and bring out the best.”
Jacobi is perhaps best known for her “portrait of Albert Einstein (Princeton, 1938), whom she photographed candidly, seated at his desk, dishevelled and dressed in a leather jacket, a work that was refused by Life magazine for its simplicity.” Other personality-driven portraits include “Eleanor Roosevelt sitting back, gesturing, and obviously speaking in midsentence; Marc Chagall depicted as a jovial family man; Thomas Mann appearing as thoughtful as his work; and more candid, gentle portraits of Einstein.” Other celebrated subjects included poets W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, and May Sarton; philosopher Martin Buber; writer J.D. Salinger; writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; scientist Max Planck; artist Käthe Kollwitz; the actress and singer Lotte Lenya; the singer and activist Paul Robeson; the actor Peter Lorre; dancer Pauline Koner; fellow photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott and Edward Steichen; and political figures such as the first president of Israel Chaim Weizmann.