Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

James E. Abbe

(1883 – 1973)

 

Marilyn Slater

Looking for Mabel

July 14, 2013

 

 

 

In 1922 Mabel Normand had photos taken by James Abbe of a few of the dresses she purchased in Paris.   James Abbe didn’t lock himself in to a studio in Manhattan but traveled throughout Europe and even explored working with a movie camera in California; he is credited as the cinematographer and director for “Home Talent” (May 1921) at the Mack Sennett Studio during the Roman sequences.  Also he was credited as the cinematographer of “Married Life” (June 1920); both starring Bun Turpin.  Mabel was working on “Molly O” (October 1921) and “Suzanna”(December 1922) at the same studio.  It is likely their paths crossed many times.  He as a photographer for Photoplay for another several months and might be the first bi-coastal entertainment photographer.

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His portraits of celebrities are highly valued; his sophisticated photos of Mabel have a silvery quality unique to Abbe. Many of Abbe’s photographs were sold to magazines like American Vogue, Vogue France, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair not just the movie fan magazines.  

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James Abbe was a boy from Alfred Maine; growing up in Portsmouth, VA where his family owned a bookstore; James sold photographs of ship launchings and arrivals, which he took with an inexpensive camera at his family store.  He was one of the photographers that understood that illustrations were on there way out and the photos were going to replace them in newspapers and magazines and the place he needed to be was New York., it wasn't long before he opened his studio at  15 West 67th St., Corner of Broadway & 47th Street, in Manhattan.  Soon Abbe was taking photos to place in periodicals.

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James Abbe  became known for taking pictures of both stage and movie stars. He worked in Paris, London and New York and he traveled with his camera to Germany and Russia. There are photos of Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and Josephine Baker -- in full costume on the stage. His exceptional method set him apart from his colleagues.  Abbe was a well established photographer, when he created the photo of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova with overlapping profiles. It is one of those iconic images that is used in almost every book about Valentino; it captures the artistic collaboration of the two stars. One of the Abbe photos that Mabel Normand had in her personal photo album personalized by Rudy to her. 

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While in France buying the pretty dresses Mabel is wearing in the photos by Abbe; she was vacationing with the Dolly Sisters, he took some magnificent photos of the sisters in full costume on the stage capturing the surreal quality of the makeup and lighting.

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In 1923, Abbe played the part of Lt. Rossini in “The White Sister” (1923) with the bird like Lillian Gish and his still photos of her are brilliant. Lillian Gish had convinced him to come to Italy to work as a lighting consultant and still photographer for “The White Sister”. He had developed the ability to enhance the stage lighting with a battery of portable lamps making intensely vivid images. He moved to Italy and spent the next period of his life in Europe, photographing movie and stage productions and fashion photos in Paris and London.

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James Edward Abbe lived to be 90  he didn’t just take pretty pictures of pretty people but he also was a photojournalist recording the unstable power struggles in Europe during the early 20th century; including coverage of the Civil War in Spain; Germany during the 1930s rising of the Nazi movement.   He took pictures of most of the notorious European leaders during the 1928-1932 period; his was the famous portrait of Joseph Stalin smiling. Abbe trekked continuously though Europe, his photos appeared in London Magazine, the Berliner Illustrire Zeitung, and the French magazine VU.

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Although eBay is not the kind of place one would think to find James Abbe original artwork, recently a canyon signed portrait of Mabel Normand sold for $787 and there is another photograph still available for $750. 

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"James Abbe Photographer" is on view in:

Alice R. and Sol B. Frank Photography Galleries

the Chrysler Museum of Art,

the National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

Photos books:

James Abbe, PHOTOGRAPHER (Chrysler Museum, 2000).

James Abbe, LIMELIGHT: PHOTOGRAPHS (Antique Collectors Club, 1995).

James Abbe, I PHOTOGRAPH RUSSIA (G. G. Harrap, 1935).

James Abbe, STARS OF THE TWENTIES (Viking Press, 1975).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For amazing information about James Abbe - the man and his work, you will find it at David Shields webpage:

 

Abbe's Autobiography, Wonderful Years:  http://broadway.cas.sc.edu/content/james-abbes-autobiography-wonderful-years 

 

And check out his book

 

There is a large chunk of information in his chapter on Abbe in his 2013 book “STILL” - American Silent Motion Picture Photography.  http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/022601326X