Lotte Jacobi, Head of a Dancer

Lotte Jacobi, Head of a Dancer, 1929, gelatin silver print, 1929, printed later, 17.8 x 22.8 cm (Saint Louis Art Museum, © Lotte Jacobi Archive, University of New Hampshire)

Lotte Jacobi, Head of a Dancer, 1929, gelatin silver print, 1929, printed later, 17.8 x 22.8 cm (Saint Louis Art Museum, © Lotte Jacobi Archive, University of New Hampshire)

We are preconditioned to be attracted to human faces and Lotte Jacobi gives us such a face, and little else, served up on a dark platter and staring at us. Facial features stand out as dark areas, bowing eyebrow lines, and assertively made-up lips against pale gray, with the highest contrast reserved for the highlight on the black irises against the white of the eyes. These facial features, enhanced by the dark lipstick, eyeliner, and eyebrow pencil typical of stage make-up, also reflect the prevailing fashion and beauty standards of the late 1920s. The eyes meet the viewer’s gaze and are also positioned below the center of the frame. But then, nothing in the composition is truly centered. The chin is cut off by the photograph’s lower edge, and the oval of the hat’s wide, black brim is cropped on every side. The incomplete curve of the hat frames and isolates the face. It adds a dynamism and tension that makes the stillness and cut-off chin of the frontal face even more striking. The subject’s dark hair is barely visible against the black of the hat behind it.

A dancer?

The title of Jacobi’s photograph informs us that this is no ordinary head. It is “the head of a dancer.” But really, it is only her face. The context of the making of this photograph is not known. It is a curious photograph of a dancer because we are not shown her full body or any of the lines—like the curves and angles made by the spine, neck, and limbs—that are so crucial in the art of dance. Movement is quietly implied by the composition through the interrupted spiral that begins at the chin and moves outward through the hat brim rather than any visible bodily movement having been captured in it. Head of a Dancer is primarily a composition of visual elements—including a face— rather than a portrait. The sitter is not even named in the title.

Lotte Jacobi, Portrait of Anna May Wong, gelatin Silver Print, 1930

Lotte Jacobi, Portrait of Anna May Wong, gelatin Silver Print, 1930

In contrast, Jacobi’s 1930 Portrait of Anna May Wong is more of a traditional portrait depiction of a dancer, and less of an abstract composition. Anna May Wong was an American actress working in Berlin. In Jacobi’s photograph we see the actress’s whole body, captured while dancing in an elaborate costume.

While Jacobi’s photographs from this period frequently name the sitter in the title, Head of a Dancer is an exception. Who was this dancer, and why was her body not shown? Many museum collections (but not all) identify the model for Head of a Dancer as Russian dancer Niura Norskaya who performed with ballerina Anna Pavlova. The fact that the sitter is not always identified by name in the photograph’s title may tell us something about what was important to Jacobi: it is more composition than portrait.

Lotte Jacobi: fourth generation photographer for the Atelier Jacobi

Lotte Jacobi made Head of a Dancer while she was still living in Berlin, an entertainment capital during the Weimar Republic (1919–33). She came from a family of photographers. Her great-grandfather visited Paris between 1839 and 1842, purchased a camera and a license to use it, and according to family lore, was trained by the pioneering French portrait photographer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Her grandfather and her father ran the Atelier Jacobi. She grew up around her father’s photography studio, first in Posen (before it became Polish) until 1921, when they moved the business to Berlin. Jacobi made her first pictures with a pin-hole camera her father made for her in about 1909. She graduated with formal training from the State Academy for Photo Design in Munich before returning to Berlin in 1927.

With her family’s commercial photography studio as her background, it is notable that Jacobi graduated from her formal training just as many artists were embracing the medium of photography for artistic ends and not just for reportage, advertising, and portraiture. By 1929, according to The Museum of Modern Art, Jacobi was one of the artists included in the traveling international exhibition of the “New Photography,” Fotografie der Gegenwart (Photography of Today), though her name did not appear on the pamphlet that accompanied the exhibition. [1]

While working as a young photographer in Berlin, she photographed people from the entertainment world, as well as literary and scientific figures such as Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Albert Einstein.

Leaving Berlin for the United States

Jacobi left Berlin behind in 1935 to avoid Nazi persecution as a Jewish woman, a leftist, and a so-called “Degenerate Artist.” She would have left earlier, but her father’s ill health stalled her departure. His death prompted her emigration to the United States.

There are no known prints of Head of a Dancer from the time it was taken. Jacobi was not able to take many prints with her as she left Germany, and retained only a small portion of her glass plates and negatives. Much of her work from Berlin was destroyed by the Nazis after she left. She was able to return to Germany after World War II, in 1962 and later in 1970, but she was never able to find and recover her earlier work in spite of repeated efforts to contact family, friends, newspapers, and publishing houses. [2] Head of a Dancer was important enough to Jacobi as an artist that she saved it among the few negatives she brought with her to the United States. The photograph is now widely reproduced and appears in several museum collections, thus having more impact than it did in 1929 when it was taken.

Compositional precedents 

Josef Albers Shielded from Homage to the Square: Ten Works by Josef Albers, 1962, one from a portfolio of ten screenprints, 43 x 42.9 cm (MoMA)

Josef Albers, Shielded from Homage to the Square: Ten Works by Josef Albers, 1962, one from a portfolio of ten screenprints, 43 x 42.9 cm (MoMA)

The composition is at once deceptively simple and complexly balanced. It evokes the color and tonal studies that fellow German-American expatriate artist Josef Albers explored in his decades-long painting series Homage to the Square. Jacobi gives us the “squaring of the circle” instead. Whereas Albers paints tonally contrasting, stable concentric squares, Jacobi offers her tonal contrasts in dynamically arrayed ovals, the face being the smaller oval inserted in the larger oval of the hat brim. This dynamism is then contained by the frame which squares off the circling curves.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, 1927, oil on canvas, 139.5 x 95.5 cm (Harvard Art Museums)

Lotte Jacobi’s photograph was right in step with the Neue Sachlichkeit (or New Objectivity) movement of her own time. We can see the same frank, pitilessly “objective,” almost confrontational, acknowledgement of the viewer that Jacobi offers in Head of a Dancer in Max Beckmann’s celebrated 1927 painting Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. In its shared concern with stark contrasts and abstract shapes, Beckmann’s dark self-portrait is also equally a tonal composition. Jacobi’s radically cropped and framed composition was also a hallmark of New Vision photography from the late 1920s, practiced by her contemporaries like Lucia Moholy and Florence Henri. New Vision’s unexpected angles and unforgiving detail offered viewers a fresh perspective on their known world, just as Jacobi’s portrait reveals a disembodied, face-only view of a dancer.

Anticipating later experimental photographs

We may look at this 1929 Head of a Dancer as a composition that anticipated Jacobi’s later experimental photographs in the 1940s and 50s that she called Photogenics. In these late works she fully embraced abstract tonal composition that she had begun to explore in Head of a Dancer, becoming completely non-objective in her later work. Head of a Dancer exemplifies Jacobi’s lifelong commitment to photography as a fine art practice not always wedded to journalism or commercial ends.

[1] Walter Dexel, Pamphlet for the Exhibition Fotografie der Gegenwart (Contemporary Photography). Magdeburg, 1929. Letterpress, 20.9 x 29.8 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

[2] Kelly Wise, “Forward: Gentle Persuasions and a Benign Predator’s Eye” in Lotte Jacobi, Kelly Wise, ed. (Donbury, New Hampshire: Addison House, 1978), p. 8.

Lotte Jacobi, ed. Kelly Wise (Donbury, New Hampshire: Addison House, 1978).

Barbara Probst Solomon, “PHOTOGRAPHY: Ghosts of Weimar Preserved on Film,” New York Times (February 2, 2004).

Cite this page as: Dr. Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafsson, "Lotte Jacobi, Head of a Dancer," in Smarthistory, August 20, 2021, accessed May 18, 2024,