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Show focuses on pioneer women photogs

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP, United Press International   |   June 30, 2003 at 1:31 PM
NEW YORK, June 30 (UPI) -- Three women photographers who pioneered the depiction of urban architecture and interior design are being honored with a group exhibition at the New York Historical Society that focuses on their contributions to American history as well as their camera skills.

Jessie Tarbox Beals, Antoinette Bryant Hervey, and Mattie Edwards Hewitt pursued careers in the field of photography when it was almost completely dominated by men. All three were active in New York in the first half of the 20th century, finding commercial outlets for their work in illustrations for shelter and fashion magazines, newspapers and even postcards in the case of Beals.

The exhibition of their work, titled "Beals, Hervey, and Hewitt: Women Pioneers of Architecture and Design Photography" and running through July 13, is a revelation, although only a small number of each photographer's work is on display due to space limitations. The high quality of the photographs, based on the mastery of darkroom techniques, show how advanced these "lady photographers" were for their time.

Hewitt (1870-1956) seems to be the most modern of the three women, taking photographs of the interiors of luxury homes and apartments that would not look out of place in this month's edition of Architectural Digest. Born in St. Louis and married and apprenticed to photographer Arthur Hewitt, she moved to New York after their divorce and went into partnership with architectural photographer Frances Johnson.

By 1917, the partnership had been dissolved and Hewitt went into business on her own, specializing in photographs of interiors of residences, hotels, clubs and stores. One of her commissions was to photograph the art-filled George Blumenthal mansion on New York's Park Avenue in 1928, and pictures of the interior on display include the indoor swimming pool and a 44-foot high patio removed from a Spanish castle that Blumenthal later bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum.

Other photographs include the sophisticated Park Avenue penthouse of publisher Conde Nast, which had its own art gallery, and the Chrysler Building studio apartment decorated in the Art Deco style by John Vassos for another photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, who specialized in photo-journalism for magazines. It is as Hollywood smart as glass, mirrors, and aluminum can make a setting for a rising star in the publications world in 1931.

Other interior designers whose work was immortalized by Hewitt were Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), Albert-Armand Rateau, Samuel Marx, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, William Lescaze, and Donald Deskey.

Beals (1870-1942) was born in Canada and also had a photographic partnership with her husband, Alfred Beals, who developed and printed the pictures she took. They moved to New York in 1905 and became a part of the Bohemian community of artists who flocked to Greenwich Village. Her photographs of the free-wheeling life there made her more famous than either Hewitt or Hervey and got her work as a photographer and writer for such prestigious magazines as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Town & Country.

The show includes Beals' photos of Village street scenes, café hang-outs decorously called tea rooms, artists' garrets, shops, and backyard gardens. One of the most interesting is a shot of a tea-room operator called Romany Marie, who reigned over a literary salon in a cozy, cottage-like setting that passed for Bohemian chic. Beals sold photos like this in the art gallery she opened after she and her husband separated in 1917.

Beals and Hewitt were self-taught photographers, but Hervey (1857-1945), an upstate New York native, had studied at art photographer Clarence White's school after dabbling in camera techniques on her own for a decade. She traveled widely in Europe with her husband, Walter Hervey, dean of Columbia University's Teachers College, and began to specialize in photos of cathedrals beginning with Chartres and Notre Dame in France.

When construction of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine was begun near the Columbia campus in 1892, she was there to record the event and kept on taking pictures as the vast structure began to rise, snapping it from every conceivable angle and in all lights and weathers for more than 40 years. A number of impressive pictures from this unique series of documentary photos are on display, selected from 1,000 prints Hervey gave the New-York Historical Society in 1940.

These include a lovely shot of the exterior of the cathedral's apse in 1921 with its central window framed by a shrub branch in full spring bloom, and a dramatic photo of the towering nave taken from atop 30-foot high scaffolding when Hervey was in her 70's. Unfortunately she was never able to record completion of the cathedral, whose continuing construction has been temporarily halted for lack of funds.

The gravure-like softness of the cathedral studies is beautiful and even somewhat mystical in a religious sense. It would seem that the time has come for the historical society to mount a show devoted solely to Hervey's great series, one of its finest holdings and comparable in some ways to its unique series of John James Audubon's original watercolor studies for "The Birds of America," which recently had a national tour.

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