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Editta Sherman’s Long Reign as ‘The Duchess of Carnegie Hall’

For a family, the quarters were cramped: 900 square feet, with a closet-size kitchen and a bathroom down the hall. For an artist, which Ms. Sherman considered herself to be, Studio 1208, was near-ideal. Light It was flooded with light from skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows facing north toward Central Park. And it was surrounded by stimulating, photogenic neighbors. The whole complex, with its rehearsal rooms, ballet and drama studios and work-live cells, was a hive of talent. Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer and Marilyn Monroe had been, or would be, in temporary residence; musical traffic came and went in Carnegie Hall downstairs; Manhattan was just outside the door.


Installation view of “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall” at the New-York Historical Society. Ms. Sherman used an 8-by-10 camera to take portraits of celebrities.

Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

But life for the Shermans was not easy. Money was hard to find. A photographic practice had to be developed and promoted and they divided the tasks. Harold hustled for clients, knocking on Broadway and Wall Street doors. Editta, dressed like a dream, took the pictures. At some point, they learned that the studio wasn’t zoned to accommodate families, and the children had to be sent to a Staten Island group home.

In 1954, Harold died and Editta was on her own as a professional. She made it work — no mean feat for a woman in postwar, pre-feminist America — by focusing everything on the job. She turned her kitchen into a darkroom, slept on a sofa and filled her studio with collections of antique clothing and furniture that she felt had potential as props.

And in the center of all this sat the camera, an immense glass-fronted box set on a wooden frame. It’s in this show, organized by Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator of the historical society’s department of prints, photographs and architectural collections. So are some 60 portraits, framed and lining the walls of a gallery in the institution’s new Center for Women’s History, much as they lined the walls of Ms. Sherman’s studio.

Because many of the portraits were intended for promotional purposes, reproduced on book covers or whatever, Ms. Sherman favored the bust-length head shot, though found considerable variety in it. She encouraged the choreographic play of hands. They brandish cigarettes (Joe DiMaggio, Yul Brynner), show off jewelry (Amy Vanderbilt), frame a face (Kim Hunter) or partly conceal one (Aaron Copland).


Joe DiMaggio in an undated portrait by Ms. Sherman.

Editta Sherman/New-York Historical Society

Some portraits amount to dramatic performances, mini solo scenes. Betty Smith looks inexplicably anxious as she clutches a copy of the novel that brought her fame, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Bela Lugosi claws the air like Dracula about to pounce. The artist LeRoy Neiman, with a wraparound mustache and major chapeau, just plays himself, a well-rehearsed comic role.

Apparently, Studio 1208 enforced no dress code. Some sitters, like the gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, arrived suited up: hat, rocks, fur stole, the works. Others, like the young, Heathcliffian Christopher Plummer, went tieless and black-shirted in a formal world. Most subjects, intrinsically interesting or not, enjoyed the benefit of Ms. Sherman’s skill with lighting, particularly evident when she printed on velvety Gavelux paper, which gave small details — eyelashes, skin textures, the glint on a pinkie ring — startling vivacity, and made shadow feel soaked-in and form-shaping, like paint.


Ms. Sherman packing up on her last day in her Carnegie Hall studio in 2010.

Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

Her best portraits are the ones that feel least posed, most unguarded, most relaxed. In a large print, the mime Marcel Marceau looks grizzled, world-weary, but gently confiding, more like the French Resistance fighter he had been than the popular clown he had become. It’s a tender image, and a tribute to what may have been Ms. Sherman’s distinctive gift: her ability to create a disarming ambience, one that could bring out, in even the most regal subjects, a warmth and softness they may not have known was there.

In that sense, her portraits are self-portraits, reflections of her embracing, permissive personality, much admired by the people who knew her well, particularly her longtime studio neighbors. It was one of them, the New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who dubbed her the Duchess of Carnegie Hall and in the 1970s made her an active collaborator in a project of his own: a photographic series called “Facades,” for which she posed in period costumes before Manhattan landmarks.

These pictures aren’t on view here, though there’s a small illustrational shot of Ms. Sherman and Mr. Cunningham together. It accompanies one of the exhibition’s few nonphotographic items: a rainbow-hued Bill Blass diva-dress that Ms. Sherman owned, wore and made even more diva by turning its feathered hem into a boa.

Flair was crucial to her aesthetic. She had no trouble imagining herself as a deific creature of the stage; her tutu-and-toe-shoe solos as “The Dying Swan” were legendary within her circle. Yet she was far too down-to-earth and plain-spoken to be genuinely imperious, as is made clear in a short film by another Carnegie habitué, Josef Astor.

In 2007, all the studio tenants were told by the building’s owner, the City of New York, that they had to move out. Some resisted. Ms. Sherman, who had lived there for almost six decades, was one. Mr. Astor made a documentary film about their daily lives under siege. Called “Lost Bohemia,” it was released in 2011, by which time the eviction was a done deal and Ms. Sherman had transferred to a Central Park South apartment where she died, age 101, in 2013.

For the current exhibition, Mr. Astor gathered cutting-room-floor outtakes from “Lost Bohemia” and made his short film about Ms. Sherman herself, which plays in the gallery. We see her at home, extravagantly dressed, stirring a pot of pasta, entertaining friends (including Mr. Cunningham), reminiscing about sitters long gone, explaining camera technique, and complaining, with no trace of bitterness, that she hadn’t received the attention she deserved.

Now she’s getting that. Some of the work is truly impressive; some high-level-O.K. Collectively, it adds up to a rich period document, and is valuable as such. (Too bad portraits of some of her more far-out neighbors weren’t included, like Lylah Tiffany, who played an accordion in front of Carnegie Hall to earn money to pay rent upstairs.) But it’s the presence of Ms. Sherman, in her work, that makes this a regal and moving package. In the studio where she spent most of her life, a world came to her, one subject at a time, and from behind the lens she ruled, with empathy and élan, all she surveyed.

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