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Matinee: Madame d'Ora Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

2 May 2020

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 251st in our series of Saturday matinees today: Madame d'Ora.

That is not Madame d'Ora you see in the poster image of this 7:31 video from WNET, New York's PBS station. It's a 1954 portrait of the French author Colette by the photographer Dora Kalimus whose professional name was Madame d'Ora.

The video is narrated by Dr. Monika Faber, director of the Photoinstitut Bonartes in Vienna, on the occasion of a retrospective of d'Ora's work she curated for the Neue Gallery in New York City. The exhibition has, like all exhibitions, been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Which would not have surprised d'Ora, we think. She faced a great deal of adversity in her long and interesting life.

Her photography career began when she was 23. She bought a Kodak box camera on vacation and two years later opened her own portrait studio.

She bought a Kodak box camera on vacation and two years later opened her own portrait studio.

When she opened that studio in May 1906, she was the first woman photographer in Vienna. She worked through two world wars in Europe before reinventing herself twice, the last time at the age of 65. That kept her going another 10 years until she retired in 1957.

Her bread and butter work was portraiture, particularly of the upper classes. Throughout her career, she shot portraits of important people. It was said she made people look much better than they imagined themselves in the mirror.

Before she was done, she would photograph Josephine Baker, Colette, Gustav Klimt, Tamara de Lempicka and Pablo Picasso, among others.

Life in Vienna became increasingly difficult for her after World War I so she moved to Paris. There she developed a three-part recipe for success. She combined 1) a publicity still of a celebrity 2) wearing designer clothing 3) photographed by a well-known photographer. These images were snapped up by the illustrated magazines of her day and, in fact, are still marketable today.

The exhibition contains an example of that approach in her image of the beloved performer Josephine Baker in a dress by the French designer Jean Patou from 1927. A Baker-Patou-d'Ora that would not be quite as fun without any one of the three of them.

As a Jew, d'Ora was in danger when the Nazis invaded France. She went into hiding in southern France, waiting for her sister to join her from Austria. But the sister was never able to escape Austria or the concentration camp where she became one of the six million Jews exterminated.

After the war, d'Ora's images became much more somber, a portrait of what civilization had become.

With a United Nations commission, she photographed displaced persons in refugee camps, particularly mothers with young children who, seemingly, had no future. She also photographed in slaughter houses, setting up her camera in a fashionable hat and elegant suit as the blood flowed on the floor and the animals screamed, a metaphor of the concentration camps. And with great tenderness, she photographed the elderly, like Colette, who still exhibited the elegance of another era.

Faber consequently draws a parallel between the subjects of d'Ora's photography from 1906 to 1957 and the social upheaval of the first half of the 20th century.

In her astonishing 50 year career, you can revisit those times with an artist who never blinked.

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