Lotte Jacobi (August 17, 1896 - May 6, 1990) was an American portrait photographer and photojournalist known for her high-contrast, black and white portrait photography. Jacobi’s photography is characterized by her humanist depictions of both ordinary people and some of the most important artists and activists of the twentieth century in the United States and Europe.
Born in Thorn, West Prussia, Germany, Jacobi was raised in a family of photographers. Her great-grandfather Samuel Jacobi had studied photography from the inventor of modern photography himself, Louis Daguerre. She began taking photographs as a child, using a pinhole camera that her father constructed for her as a birthday gift. In 1927 Jacobi took over her great-grandfather’s photography studio in Berlin, where she photographed many high-ranking German officials. Unaware that she was Jewish, they praised her work as upholding the values of Aryan ideology, ultimately offering Jacobi honorary Aryan status in 1935. Jacobi rejected the Nazis’ offer, and fled first to London and then to the United States, where she became one of America’s foremost portrait photographers. Jacobi opened a studio in New York and was soon photographing the artists, scientists, political leaders, and literary figures of the day. Among the people she photographed were Albert Einstein, who was a family friend, and prominent Americans such as Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Paul Robeson.
Her photographs are notable for their intimacy and for the personal qualities that she reveals in the faces of her subjects. Jacobi intended the photograph to reveal the personality of the subject, not of the photographer. In addition to the cultural elite, Jacobi photographed children in city streets and, later, her neighbors in rural New Hampshire. She experimented with photogenics, a cameraless photography in which she exposed photosensitive paper to light to create abstract images.