By: David Schonauer
Publish Date: Jan. 9, 2018, 8:50 a.m.
Firstly, he was a pioneering photographer.
But Baron Adolf de Meyer, Vogue’s first staff photographer, isn’t easily attached to just one identify. His background is both extravagant and uncertain: He was born, probably, in 1868 — possibly in Paris, though it might have been Vienna or Helsinki – to a Scottish mother and German-Jewish father. He arrived in London in 1895 with a title, though that claim is questionable.
“We know that he was born Adolphus Meyer (no de) in Germany in 1868 but liked to say that he was French; he drifted to London and was a member of the louche crowd that was then kissing the tweedy jacket hem of the Prince of Wales,” noted Vogue in 2015.
But he was more than a mere social climber. Over the course of his career, de Meyer transformed fashion photography, which until then had been dull and stiff. His luminous portraits injected high society into fashion editorials, “capturing the nascent sexuality and theatrical manners of the leisure class,” declared The New York Times in 2010.
Perhaps his highest praise came from Cecil Beaton, who memorably called de Meyer “the Debussy of photography.”
As a new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art shows, de Meyer created images as he did his own life, transforming reality “into a beautiful fantasy.”
The exhibition, called “Quicksilver Brilliance,” is the first museum exhibition devoted to de Meyer in more than 20 years. Featuring some 40 works, drawn entirely from The Met’s own collection, it runs through March 18, 2018.
Josephine Baker, 1925–26
“While we may not be entirely sure who Adolf de Meyer was, and the artist himself may have had doubts, his works tell the story of a visionary,” notes the AnOther blog.
Some background, or what is known of de Meyer’s background: According to the International Center of Photography, he spent his childhood in both France and Germany and “entered the international photographic community” around 1894, creating romantic, aestheticized imagery in tune with the Pictorialist movement of the day. By 1899 he had earned membership in the Linked Ring, a society of Pictorialist photographers in Britain.
De Meyer’s own flamboyance helped him gain entry into the London world of upper-class patrons and artists who surrounded Edward, Prince of Wales. In 1899 he married Olga Caracciolo, an Italian noblewoman widely believed to be the Prince’s illegitimate daughter. It was a marriage of convenience, notes AnOther: Both de Meyer and his wife were gay, but together the couple cemented each other’s social status.
Their status took a hit after Edward VII’s death in 1910 and the coming of World War I. De Meyer traveled to the United States in 1912 and was hired as Vogue's first full-time photographer in 1914. He produced fashion layouts and photographed celebrities there until 1921, when he accepted a position at Harper's Bazaar that allowed him to return to Paris.
Etienne de Beaumont, ca. 1923
The Shadows on the Wall, “Crysanthemums,” ca. 1906
Rita de Acosta Lydig, ca. 1917
De Meyer, notes AnOther, “was at the forefront of a new visual vocabulary for fashion photography, one with a direct link to the likes of Deborah Turbeville and Tim Walker today.”
But fashion being fashion, de Meyer’s Pictorialist images began to be seen as outmoded in the 1920s. At Vogue Edward Steichen began ushering in modernism. In Paris, de Meyer continued to thrive, shooting the singer Josephine Baker in sequins and feathers and Coco Chanel in a fur-lined suit of her own making. “[B]rands such as Elizabeth Arden were clamoring for his otherworldly touch on their ads,” notes AnOther.
By 1932, however, de Meyer was forced out of Harper's Bazaar. Unrest in Europe brought him back to the United States in 1939, and, notes the ICP, “he spent his remaining years in Hollywood, where he died, virtually unknown and unappreciated, in 1946.”
Plate from Le Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faune, 1914
De Meyer was also the preeminent photographer of Vaslav Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes, and among the highlights of the new exhibition is a book — one of only seven known copies —documenting Nijinsky's 1912 ballet “L'Après-midi d'un faune.”
“This rare album represents de Meyer's great success in capturing the movement and choreography of dance, a breakthrough in the history of photography,” notes the museum.