The Debussy of photography

French Photographer, 1868 – 1946

by Marion Theron

Known for his celebrity portrait photographs, Baron Adolf de Meyer’s early life is characterised by obscurity, possibly initiated by himself. He was born in Paris in 1868  and became a respected member of the international photographic community in 1896 when he moved to London. Later, in 1899 he became a member of the Linked Ring, a society of Pictorialist photographers in Britain. A membership earned by his innovative Pictorialist photographs. His work depicted celebrities such as Mary Pickford, Rita Lydig, Luisa Casati, Billie Burke, Irene Castle, John Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Ruth St. Denis, King George V of the United Kingdom, and Queen Mary.  De Meyer married Donna Olga Caracciolo, a marriage of convenience rather than romantic love since the groom was homosexual and the bride was bisexual.

Between 1903 and 1907 his work was published in Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly Camera Work. Cecil Beaton dubbed him “the Debussy of photography”. In 1912 he photographed Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes in Paris. On the outbreak of World War I, the de Meyers moved to New York City, where he became a photographer for Vogue from 1913–21, and for Vanity Fair. He was the first official fashion photographer for the American magazine Vogue. In 1922 de Meyer accepted an offer to become the Harper’s Bazaar chief photographer in Paris, spending the next 16 years there. Although de Meyer had set a standard for elegance and style, his Pictorialist-inspired fashion photographs were seen as outmoded by the 1930s, and he was forced to leave Harper’s Bazaar in 1932. On the eve of World War II in 1938, de Meyer returned to the United States. He died in Los Angeles in 1946, aged 77, his death being registered as ‘Gayne Adolphus Demeyer, writer (retired)’.

Today, few of his prints survive, most having been destroyed during World War II. A master of fashion photography and society portraiture, he captured an elegant and carefree world which ceased existence with World War II. His sophisticated photographs have become models for many contemporary fashion photographers.

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