He called himself a ‘tramp photographer’, a typically self-deprecating view of his considerable skills as a photojournalist, but the American James Abbe (born in Alfred, Maine, in 1883) was no newspaper hack. He first made a name for himself in the early days of the silent cinema, when his flair for composition and use of light produced some of the most enduring, iconic images of screen idols such as Fred Astaire, Clara Bow, the Gish sisters, Charlie Chaplin and above all Rudolf Valentino. Yet today the work of the man who went on to photograph several of the most controversial leaders of the twentieth century, including Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Mussolini and Diego Rivera, remains largely neglected.
James Abbe’s first significant photo-opportunity had come in 1898 when, aged fifteen, he photographed the US battleship Maine as it set sail for Havana at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. (He had received his first camera a $1 Kodak model, at the age of twelve.) For a while after leaving school he covered local news stories whilst working in his father’s bookshop at Newport News, where he sold postcards of his photographs. It was not until 1910 that he received his first official assignment, as a photographer for the Washington Post documenting the voyage to Europe of a new fleet of American battleships.
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