It’s the one of Valentino and his wife that catches the eye, I think, in any on-line gallery of his work. It’s so redolent of an era – that of the first of the golden ages of Hollywood. This was the period that was the harbinger of our own age of the celebrity. As now, back then photographers were to the fore in satisfying the cravings of the public to get closer to the celebrities they adored. Look at that particular photo – she (Natacha Rambova) is exquisite – but Rudy, well he was something else.

james abbe valentino and wife

And the snapper to the stars who caught that now everlasting moment? That was one James Abbe. Reading his story it seems he was a ground-breaker in the art of capturing the essence of those early icons of the silver screens.

Abbe was first and foremost a photojournalist. Later in his career he was one of the trickle of western reporters to be allowed into Stalinist Russia to capture life under a dictator. He even met and shot the communist leader – many would have preferred that to have been with a gun. But for a fleeting few years he set the pace as the movie making business started to morph into the mega-dollar industry it became our lifetimes. He was quick to realise that making and selling prints of the performers, those who tantalised the imagination of Joe Everyone, could be a nice little earner in itself.

Growing up in Newport News, Virginia the young James Abbe began his infatuation with photography early. His father owned a bookshop and the lad, born in 1883, earned some pocket money taking snaps of the ships that came into the town’s harbour and then selling them behind his dad’s counter. By 1916 he was competent enough to have his pictures placed in various periodicals as the publishing industry started to realise actual photographs could enhance a narrative. He soon found it worth his while to move to the big smoke, NYC. His major break came with a photograph of prominent stage actors the Barrymore Brothers, at the time the kings of Broadway and soon to be seen in moving pictures. Following their trajectory, Abbe discovered there was money to be made in photographing theatrical types. For a while he specialised in capturing them in costume, but later diversified into what we today would term publicity stills. But it soon became evident that the eastern seaboard city wasn’t where it was at – he would soon have to heed the call to ‘go west young man’ where LA was the happening place. In 1919 Abbe became only the third camerasmith to seek his fortune in Hollywood, making an impact with Mack Sennett and others. He commuted between there and New York on a regular basis fulfilling engagements – the first bi-coastal lensman.

james abbe mary pickford

By this time he was a family man, but the trappings of fame ensnared him. He became very involved with emerging superstar Lillian Gish. In 1922 he upended his marriage and followed Gish to Italy where she was filming. Thereafter followed eight years in Paris. Again he pointed his camera at the stars of the local stage and cinema, as well as visiting celebrities from all over. In 1927 he was off to Russia and from that point on photo-journalism became his chief priotity with his photographic apparatus..

But history will remember him for his renderings of the entertainment greats in those earlier years. He was, from the outset, a master of lighting. Initially photographers just used what was immediately available, usually that already present to light stage or screen performances. But Abbe was more innovative, placing banks of portable lamps adroitly to garner the texture he was after. His competitors, seeing his quality of product, were soon following suit.


James Abbe passed away in 1973 after three marriages and an adventurous life. He was 91. Abbe was a recorder for an age that was a prelude to the present day’s contemporary media saturation – that dealing with the comings and goings of identities who are perceived to exude talent – and a few that seriously don’t. His images gave the fans back then a personal context to the thespians that they viewed on stage or screen. He allowed one to own a piece of the action. The masses could possess something linking them to those they fawned over from the cheap stalls of the early movie houses or worshipped from the posh private boxes of Broadway.

James Abbe on-line =

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1933


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