Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources
Introduction & Biographical Essay
Self-portrait, ca. 1901. Metropolitan Magazine (Sept. 1901)
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer.
Until recently, Zaida Ben-Y˙suf's reputation as a photographer was like the life of a fairy tale princess frozen by a sorcerer's spell in the period 1896 to 1902. Scholars knew her largely through art photographs in two important institutional collections: the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress.1 New research in archives and magazines is bringing back to life her photojournalism career, which lasted through the 1910s. Her photography and fashion careers also document how a woman could make a living independently despite the limited number of careers open to women at the turn of the twentieth century.
Ben-Y˙suf was one of the "New Women" who joined the paid labor force in the 1890s. She was in the vanguard of women who became professional photographers as magazines reached massive circulation figures, and photographs supplanted drawn illustration art.
Starting in 1896, Ben-Y˙suf worked in several areas of photography--fine art, fashion, theater, celebrity portraiture, newspapers, and illustration--and also wrote magazine articles with photographic illustrations. In the art photography field, she rose quickly to the highest echelons in London and New York. The famous Linked Ring (British invitation-only photography society) included her work in one of its exhibitions, and she exhibited in juried art shows for several years. But the popularity of her art work soon diminished. As an artist without formal training in an increasingly competitive field, she may have exhausted her considerable natural talent. In 1901, she wrote to Stieglitz that she had nothing good enough to show in the Glasgow International Exhibition (but four of her photographs were included), and the following year reviewer Charles Caffin noted that her photographs "represent very little real artistic feeling and are sadly out of place on the walls of a salon."2 A practical consideration might also have influenced her move away from fine art photography. She produced a large number of magazine illustrations in the early 1900s and might simply have targeted her work towards the more commercially viable popular culture aesthetic.
In the early 1900s, Ben-Y˙suf left art photography to join the ranks of women travelers and writers. Two decades later, her adventures over, she returned to the needlework arts she had learned early in her life from her mother. From 1922 until her death in 1933, she earned her living creating and promoting women's fashions in New York City.
The Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress has thirteen original photographs by Ben-Y˙suf and scans of several magazine photo illustrations are also online. The general collections contain many magazines that include and discuss Ben-Y˙suf's work. In the biography Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer, author Frank Goodyear emphasizes her portrait work.3 This sketch will focus on her photojournalism and economic survival in the early 1900s.
Esther Zeghdda Ben-Yo˙seph Nathan was born in London to Es-Seyyid Mustafa and Anna Ben-Y˙suf Nathan, on November 21, 1869.4 As a young adult, she went by her middle name using the spelling Zaida. Her parents were estranged as early as 1881--her father an Algerian itinerant actor turned shop keeper in London and her mother a German-born milliner raising four daughters on her own. Zaida's mother immigrated to Boston in 1888 where she was working as a milliner by 1891.5 By the mid-1890s, Zaida and her three sisters had joined their mother in the United States.6 Zaida worked initially as a milliner but soon began publishing photographs.
An early mention of Ben-Y˙suf exhibiting photographs is an 1896 review of a show sponsored by the exclusive Linked Ring photographic society, which praised her work. Although it is not known how she learned photography, her work was considered of sufficient artistic merit for this juried show.7 The Linked Ring was an invitational photography group founded in England in 1892 to expound the view that photography was as much an art as a science.
In 1897, Ben-Y˙suf responded to a request from Alfred Stieglitz, the leader of the art photography movement in America and vice-president of the Camera Club of New York, for photographs for his personal collection and he included her images in the Club's exactingly produced Camera Notes.8 In 1898, the Camera Club of New York exhibited more than 20 prints by Ben-Y˙suf, alongside those of Frances Benjamin Johnston, as part of its regular series of two-person exhibitions. This honor was rarely extended to women photographers.9
Ben-Y˙suf juxtaposed fine art tradition and bohemianism in an unconventional manner that both intrigued her contemporaries and made them uncomfortable. Art critic Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944) wrote more about Ben-Y˙suf's personality than her photographs. In 1899 he said of her:
She attends Ibsen performances, and everything else that mildly stirs up the Bohemian circles, reads decadent literature, and [referring to black-and-white photographs] fancies high-keyed pictures such as outshoot each other in color, best. Personally she is very fastidious in her taste, one of those peculiar persons who can only live in a room with wall paper of a most violent blue."10
In 1900, Hartmann wrote in a letter to the editors of the influential British Journal of Photography that she was "strictly mercenary."11 Her reputation as a princess of art photography was beginning to melt and had disappeared by March 1902 when Stieglitz organized the inaugural exhibition of his new Photo-Secession group. He omitted her work along with that of many other photographers he had supported in the days of Camera Notes. Her final mention in the art photography world came in a 1912 article by Hartmann, who said that she had vanished without a trace and suggested that she had possibly disappeared into the South Pacific.12 In fact, she had traveled to Australia and other countries around the Pacific Ocean, but scarcely disappeared. Newspapers reported that she returned frequently to New York City and lived in London at the time of Hartmann's article.13
In the 1895 New York City directory, Ben-Y˙suf was listed as a milliner. She lived at 1 East 28th Street, and magazine illustrator L.L. Roush (1862-1918) lived in the other apartment in the same building.14 The nature of magazine illustration changed dramatically at the end of the 1890s when halftone technology made it possible to reproduce photographs on the printed page. In January 1897, Ben-Y˙suf wrote and illustrated an article about hat making in the sophisticated fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. Her work predated by nine months Frances Benjamin Johnston's frequently cited September 1897 article alerting women to the possibilities of economic independence through photography.15 Ben-Y˙suf continued to work in fashion magazine illustration with two 1898 photographically illustrated articles about millinery for Ladies' Home Journal, which was one of the nation's most successful magazines.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, "The Foremost Women Photographers in America: Zaida Ben-Yusuf," The Ladies' Home Journal, Nov. 1901, vol. XVII, no. 12, APS online, p. 13.
Important opinions of important people on the merits of the Kodak developing machine. 1902.
Ben-Y˙suf found a variety of venues for her photographs. For example, she illustrated an 1897 newspaper article promoting the newly introduced "safety" bicycle for women. The article addressed the themes of healthy exercise for women and unstructured dress, emphasized by a Ben-Y˙suf photograph showing a woman in drapery or Hellenic athletic dress holding a bicycle aloft.16 In 1902, Ben-Y˙suf, along with Alfred Stieglitz, Alexander Graham Bell, and a host of others not so well known today, appeared in an advertisement titled "Important opinions of important people on the merits of the Kodak developing machine."17
Theater portraits were an early Ben-Y˙suf specialty, possibly due to family connections. Her father was an actor in Britain; her sister Haidee in New York City in 1900, and, over the next few years, sisters Leila and Pearl (sometimes using the stage name Benton) performed in New York theaters and with traveling companies throughout the country. Zaida's portrait of her sister Pearl, cigarette in hand, graced Metropolitan Magazine in 1901, well before cigarette smoking by women was considered socially acceptable.
Ben-Y˙suf's portrait of theater critic, manager, and dramatist August Daly (1839-1899) was so highly regarded that it was used for his obituary. Zaida regularly provided portraits of actors and their "characterizations" for the New York Times column "The Drama" and leading magazines such as Harper's Weekly.18 Many of the characters appear as musical comedy performers but some show actors who appeared in serious works by Ibsen and Shakespeare. She photographed so many of the members of the salon hosted by theatrical entrepreneur Elisabeth "Bessie" Marbury and her partner Elsie de Wolfe that she might have been a guest at the gatherings.
Pearl Benton as a Chinese idol in San Toy.
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, March 1901.
"Celebrities Under the Camera."
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, 1901.
Ben-Y˙suf contributed to the expanded use of celebrity portraiture in magazines. Early on, she confessed to Hartmann her desire to become the "Mrs. Cameron of America," by photographing "as many of the celebrities as she could get hold of, and thus go down to posterity with them as a depicter of geniuses."19 She was referring to Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), doyenne of upper class portraiture in her native England. Ben-Y˙suf achieved her goal if not Cameron's more enduring fame. She had access to prestigious clients and photographed popular public intellectuals and writers for such cultural publications as The Bookman, The Critic, Metropolitan Magazine and Outlook. In June 1901, Ben-Y˙suf published the article "Celebrities Under the Camera," which included an account of the intense concentration required to understand the personality of strangers within fifteen or twenty minutes.
Ben-Y˙suf's life and work dovetailed at times. In 1901, The Bookman published her portrait of Edith Wharton.20 In 1905, Wharton's first masterpiece, The House of Mirth, exposed the mercilessness of New York high society. The novel's heroine, Lily Bart, a milliner who tried but failed to secure a rich husband, is said to be modeled on Ben-Y˙suf.
The Middle Ground
Ben-Y˙suf attempted to combine her various interests in photography by making images that blended tradition and innovation. Her 1901 article, "The New Photography--What It Has Done and Is Doing for Modern Portraiture" described her work as "a middle way" in the hotly contested territory between commercial portraiture and the art photography practiced by people of leisure. In the article, she contrasted the commercial photographer's objective of pleasing the client with the amateur's desire for pleasing aesthetic effect. She opted for aesthetics, saying, "The keynote of interest in modern photography is the possibility of expressing one's personal point of view."
Photographing News Makers
Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as Governor.
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, 1899.
[Grover Cleveland tying a fly on his fishing line.]
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, 1901.
Ben-Y˙suf also followed national politics and current events, supplying portraits of New York governor Theodore Roosevelt and former President Grover Cleveland. She photographed Leonard Wood while he was governor of Cuba, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, and photographer and journalist Jacob Riis who had just published his book of social commentary, How the Other Half Lives.
Ben-Y˙suf also knew women adventurers. In May 1902, The Bookman published her portrait of Nancy Huston Banks who served on the editorial staff of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and worked as a reporter on the war in South Africa for the London Vanity Fair. She photographed Agnes C. Laut, author of Vikings of the Pacific. And she photographed her longtime friend, the charismatic explorer May French Sheldon who led an expedition to Kilimanjaro in the 1890s.
"Don't you see that you are making me a great deal of trouble?"
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, 1902.
Ben-Y˙suf joined photographers such as Johnston, Clarence White and Gertrude Kasebier in making the newly invented "photo sketches" for magazine fiction.21 In the summer and fall of 1901, Ben-Y˙suf provided such illustrations for a four-part romance, "The Love Affairs of Patricia," which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. In the summer of 1902, for the same magazine, she illustrated a romantic farce about life in Ben-Y˙suf's own New York City neighborhood for George Hibbard's story "Miss Wainwright's Adventure: A Mid-summer Comedy of Misunderstandings." The illustrations incorporate a snapshot aesthetic that crops objects at the edges of frames and employs panoramic effects. This marked a departure from the centered bust format of her celebrity portraits, although a few of her earliest art studies show dancers cavorting off to the edge of the picture plane and figures casting quizzical glances over their shoulders at an unseen audience. Her work resembled that of her neighbor L. L. Roush whose illustrations had come to resemble photographs more than the engravings he had produced earlier in his career.
Magazine Writing, Teaching, and Illustrating
Ben-Y˙suf continued producing articles as well as pictorial illustration. From November 1901 until April 1902, Ben-Y˙suf offered a six-part illustrated how-to-do-it photography course in the Saturday Evening Post. She augmented her portrait photographer's income by writing about her exotic travels. Freelance photography could not cover Ben-Y˙suf's expenses, even with the publicity of articles heralding her as one of America's foremost photographers.22 By the end of 1902, the effort to earn her living was proving exhausting. Nevertheless, she was consistently alert, engaged, articulate and hard-working; creative in her ability to find new opportunities; and admiring of women whose lives were even more unconventional than her own.
"Japan Through My Camera."
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, 1904.
A mountain village - showing a good example
of the thatched roof
Zaida Ben-Yusuf, photographer, 1906.
Early in 1903, when Ben-Y˙suf left for Japan, she wrote, "Before I left home -- I longed for the possibility of leaving cameras behind. I was tired of them. The very name spoiled the prospect of pleasures to come." But Ben-Y˙suf knew herself well and brought her equipment, anticipating a relapse of what she called "camera fever."23 On this trip she embarked on a new profession, that of travel writer. The trip yielded "Japan through my Camera," a four-part, illustrated series for the Saturday Evening Post, in the spring and summer of 1904, which included photographs from Tokyo, and Nagasaki, and the retreats of Nikko and Kompira San that Japanese (rather than American and European) tourists frequented.24 Through 1907, she published photographs from her Japanese sojourn in Leslie's Monthly Magazine, Booklovers Magazine, and Century. She spent nearly a decade as a photojournalist and travel writer.
Her photographs of Japanese architecture were published in the January and February 1906 issues of The Architectural Record.25 She provided twenty-two photographs to illustrate an authoritative article written by Katharine C. Budd (1860-1951), a pioneering female American architect, who lived near her in New York City.26 The February issue contained Ben-Y˙suf's own article about heating Japanese homes, titled "The Period of Daikan."27 In the March 1907 issue of Century Magazine, Ben-Y˙suf published an illustrated article about Japanese style flower arranging.28
Gradually, Ben-Y˙suf's work came to address only the practical, without the photographs that so engaged her earlier in life. In the Saturday Evening Post in 1908, she published three articles, "The Cost of Living in London: Saving Pence and Spending Shillings," "American vs. English Prices," and "Our Practical Cousins," which compared finances in England with those in the U.S.
Later Life, 1908-1933
On November 9, 1908, reporters welcomed Ben-Y˙suf back to New York City, after traveling 35,000 miles in a three-year, round-the-world trip. Ever fashion conscious, she reported that New York City's women were prettier and more stylishly dressed than women elsewhere.29 For several years she was back and forth between New York, Paris, and London. In 1909, she lent to the Metropolitan Museum a model of a gate of the Temple of Nikko, Japan.30 In 1911, she was elected to the feminist Lyceum Club in London and in 1914 she became a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.31 The 1911 British census listed Ben-Y˙suf and L. L. Roush as husband and wife employed photographers at Bolton Studio in London. When she returned to America in 1914 as World War I broke out, she traveled as Zayda Roush. Roush's biographers have found no record of his having divorced his first wife in Pennsylvania. Roush returned to the United States a little later, worked as an interior decorator and died in 1918.32
Back in New York in 1915, Ben-Y˙suf resumed her portrait practice, but, in 1917, she converted her photography studio into a dressmaking salon. In the 1920s, Ben-Y˙suf returned to the world of fashion as "an art expert, fashion creator, and lecturer on dress design."33 During her final two decades she was known as "Madame Zayda Ben-Y˙sef." She had returned to her roots in the artisan-crafts realm. She took out classified ads in the New York Times for her dressmaking services and, in 1925, began to be listed as an itinerant consultant for Read's Fashion Service in bargain basement stores along the Eastern seaboard. By 1928 she had moved to the position of fashion director of the Retail Millinery Association where she worked to elevate the trade shows to the highest levels.
In the absence of personal papers, odd remnants provide the only clues to Ben-Y˙suf's final years. In a group portrait by Jessie Tarbox Beals, her contemporary and the era's self-appointed recorder of Greenwich Village's bohemian world, Ben-Y˙suf sits at the back of a group of twenty or so adults, some in costume. "Jerry Norris" sits in the front row.34 In 1930, the United States Census record shows that Ben-Y˙suf was married to Frederick J. "Jerry" Norris, an actor and fabric specialist. Her occupation was listed as "none," suggesting she had retired.35 On September 27, 1933, Ben-Y˙suf died as Zayda Ben-Yusef Norris at the Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. According to the date on her original birth certificate, she would have turned sixty-four in November.36
Achievements and Contributions
The Love Affairs of Patricia -- Foiling Fate.
Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, photographer, 1901.
Early in her career, Ben-Y˙suf's contemporaries praised her. She was lauded by such leading art photography figures as Alfred Stieglitz and Sadakichi Hartmann. F. Holland Day admired the "sweetness, fidelity, and originality" of her work."37 Although she claimed to have been self-taught, Ben-Y˙suf exhibited her earliest work in exclusive salons and published her photographs in major magazines to much critical acclaim and apparent success. As a portraitist, Ben-Y˙suf can be considered modernist in that she photographed the "here and now"--her sitters were principally her contemporaries from the world of theater, politics, literature and art, people of her own style and generation, men and women who came into their prime in the years before World War I.
The story of modernism in art sometimes obscures our view of artists whose work did not belong to the avant-garde. Women of photography, photojournalism, and the arts are only now attracting researchers intent on reclaiming women's history. With the efforts of social historians and historians of clothing and dress, more of Ben-Y˙suf's works may become known. Best of all, electronic sources have made it possible to recover dozens of her photographic images published in Ladies' Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, Outlook, Metropolitan Magazine, and Architectural Times. Her published images show Ben-Y˙suf to be the successful celebrity portraitist and photographer her contemporaries justly admired. Ben-Y˙suf moved successfully from self-supporting art photography to working as one of the earliest woman magazine photographers.
1 The Alfred Stieglitz Collection was assembled while he belonged to the Camera Club of New York, and edited its magazine, Camera Notes. See Weston J. Naef, "Zaida Ben-Yúsuf," in The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Viking Press, 1978, 273-4, 316. The Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection is an archive of letters and photographs collected by one of America's first photojournalists.
2 Charles Coffin, "The Philadelphia Photographic Salon," Camera Notes 5: 3 (Jan 1902): 211-12.
3 Frank H. Goodyear III. Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer. London: Merrell, 2008.
4 Details of Ben-Yusuf's early life are from Frank H. Goodyear. Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer. London: Merrell, 2008, 228
5 1900 U. S. Federal Census, Massachusetts, Suffolk County, Boston, Ward 10, District 1301
6 Leila and Pearl indicated they arrived in 1894, 1900 U. S. Federal Census, Massachusetts, Suffolk County, Boston, Ward 10, District 1301. Decades later, Zaida said she arrived in 1895 with her family, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, New York, New York, Manhattan (Districts 1-250) District 49.
7 Ibid, 228.
8 Ibid, 13.
9 William Murray, "Miss Zaida Ben-Yúsuf"s Exhibition (November 9 to 26, )" Camera Notes 2, no. 4 (April 1899): 168, 171-172; Kirsten Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, 109-10, and 115-116.
10 Sadakichi Hartmann, "A Purist," The Photographic Times, 31 (Oct. 1899): 449-55, as published in Harry W. Lawton and George Knox (eds.), The Valiant Knights of Daguerre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, 169, 171.
11 Sadakichi Hartmann, Letter to the Editors, British Journal of Photography, Nov. 30, 1900, as quoted in Verna Posever Curtis and Jane Van Nimmen (ed.), F. Holland Day: Selected Texts and Bibliography, New York: G.K. Hall, 1995, 92.
12 Sadakichi Hartmann, Letter to the Editors, British Journal of Photography, Nov. 30, 1900, as quoted in Verna Posever Curtis and Jane Van Nimmen (ed.), F. Holland Day: Selected Texts and Bibliography, New York: G.K. Hall, 1995, 92.
13 Nixola Greeley-Smith, "College Girls of This Country Are the Finest Type of Womanhood, Declares Zaida Ben Yusuf," Oakland Tribune, Dec. 6, 1908.
14 Trow’s New York City Directory (New York: Trow Directory, Printing, and Bookbinding Company, 1895): 104. As cited by Goodyear, op. cit., 19.
15 Frances Benjamin Johnston, "What a Woman Can Do With a Camera," Ladies Home Journal, 14, no. 10 (September 1897): 6-7.
16" Pictorial Photographer," New York Daily Tribune, Nov. 7, 1897, section 3, page 1.
17 The World's Work, advertiser, IV, no. 6 (Oct. 1902): 2708. .
18 Haidee Ben-Yousif, 1900 U.S. Federal Census, New York, NY, Manhattan, District 682, p. 28; Leila Ben-Yúsuf became an actress who used the stage name Benton. In 1907, Leila Benton played the role of Beatriz in The Hoyden, when the show was in New York; after Dec. 22, 1907; when the show went on the road, Pearl Ben-Yúsuf replaced her older sister. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: portrait of Leila Benton in Chicago Tribune, Sept. 29, 1907, "Winning Popularity in Chicago, as star in The Red Mill"
19 Sadakichi Hartmann, "A Purist," The Photographic Times, 31 (Oct. 1899): 449-55, as published in Harry W. Lawton and George Knox (ed.), The Valiant Knights of Daguerre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, 169. Julia Margaret Cameron took up photography as a hobby and arranged for eminent figures to pose for her.
20 Zaida Ben-Yúsuf, "Edith Wharton," Book Buyer 22, no. 3 (April 1, 1901); 184.
21 T. W. Marion, "The Photo-Sketch—A New Idea in Art," Metropolitan Magazine XIV no. 5, (1901 Nov.):535-540.
22 Frances Benjamin Johnston, "The Foremost Women Photographers in America, Sixth Article: Zaida Ben-Yúsuf." Ladies’ Home Journal XVIII: 12 (November 1901): 13.
23 Zaida Ben-Yúsuf, "Japan Through My Camera," Photo Era, XII (May 1904) 77.
24 The four articles appeared between April 23 and August 6, 1904.
25 "Japanese Houses," The Architectural Record, 19:1 (January 1906) 3-26.
26 Sarah Allabach, The First American Women Architects, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 57-58.
27 Zaida Ben-Y˙suf, The Architectural Record, 19: 2 (February 1906), 145-50.
28 "The Honorable Flowers of Japan," Century Magazine, 71:5 (March 1907), 697-705.
29 "Miss Ben-Yúsuf Returns: The Artist-Lecturer Has Traveled 35,000 Miles," New York Times, (Nov. 10, 1908): 13.
30 Metropolitan Museum Art Bulletin 4, no. 5 (1909): 93.
31 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1914-15: 5.
32U. S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 about Louis L. Roush, Ancestry.com
33 As a single example: Kresge Department Stores. "Special Announcement…Mme. Ben Yusuf…A Demonstration of New Styles and Fabrics on a Living Model," Washington Post Jun 21, 1925: 11.
34 Photo number PC60-1-9. Jessie Tarbox Beals Collection. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
35 1930 United States Federal Census. Manhattan, New York, New York.
36 Obituaries, The New York Times, (September 28, 1933): 21.
37 F. Holland Day, "Art and the Camera," Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, vol. 65 (Jan. 1900): 83-87 as quoted in Verna Posever Curtis and Jane Van Nimmen (ed.), F. Holland Day: Selected Texts and Bibliography, New York: G.K. Hall, 1995, 66.
Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2013. Last revised: 2014.