Born on 22. December 1895 in Vienna, Austria, Trude Fleischmann lived to be 94 years old. She died on 21. January 1990 in New York.
Fleischmann is amongst the most noteworthy photographers of the 1920s and 30s. But before starting her career as a photographer she graduated from high school, studied art history in Paris for one semester and photography for three years at the »Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Photographie und Reproduktionsverfahren« in Vienna (this is the school today). After working as an apprentice during WWI she opened her first studio at the center of Vienna in 1920, aged 25 (in Ebendorferstr. 3).
Clients and Style
She soon began working with the most prestigious clients in town: scientists, politicians, business owners and artists such as famous actors, dancers and composers. During her apprenticeship at the Atelier d’Ora Fleischmann had learned about the most modern portrait conceptions. With Atelier Schieberth she learned a more minimalist and soft approach to setting portraits.
The availability of artificial lighting allowed her to dramatically stage her subjects and portray them with an air of elegance and mystery. Have a look at Rembrandt lighting.
Fleischmann was famous for her natural style and her ability to portrait people looking their most comfortable and relaxed. Her models rarely had to pose and she sometimes used a trick where she would press a button and the camera would audibly click. People then thought she was ready, but she’d take the actual photo just then, which resulted in unstaged portraits.
Besides simple set-ups, Fleischmann also experimented with artfully applied blur, props and costumes.
Male Critics even (or specially) then…
Like many art forms photography was purely a male domain. Before WWI there were hardly any female photographers and Fleischmann’s career would not have been possible. Dora Kallmus, founder of the aforementioned Atelier d’Ora, was one of the first women to open a studio and a year later in 1908 young women began registering for classes at the Viennese school of photography (as mentioned above). After WWI women were more and more viewed as an important part of the art. Yet some men, namely the photographer Hermann Clemens Kosel, writes in 1921 that women have brought »harlotry to the art of photography« and degraded »the moral seriousness of art to something vulgar.« However, the young and dynamic ladies of the time remain unimpressed by such narrow-mindedness.
Is Nudity Really Scandalous?
Well, in 1925 it surely was a scandal if a (female) photographer took photos of a famous dancer – nude and oiled. A series of pictures of Claire Bauroff caused a lot of commotion when they were published in the 1920s. Bauroff became known as the »naked dancer« (which she never approved of). Nevertheless the rise of expressionist dance promoted a different and more modern approach to body awareness, emphasising the unity of body and soul. There is nothing remotely vulgar about these photos; on the whole they underline naturalness and melancholy. Yet they were confiscated and censored by police and press in years to come.
Bauroff and Fleischmann interpret the female body in this series as a piece of art: as a way of expressing emotion. Therefore they present it in an absolutely self-confident way. Nothing distracts from the rawness, strength but also vulnerability.
Life Before WWII
In the years before WWII Fleischmann’s work was published in several magazines covering topics from fashion and leisure to theatre and film. She also began selling landscape photographs and composing travel coverage, reacting to the changes within Austrian society in 1930. The demand for more bucolic scenes made her outdoor photography more conventional, her studio work remained modernist nevertheless. She sold photos to many German publishers, but only until 1933. Being Jewish, it was forbidden to release her photos henceforth.
Five years later, her career (in Austria) ended as sudden as it had for nearly all Jewish people at the time. Systematic prosecution, racist and antisemitic raids and compulsory acquisitions made it impossible to live a peaceful life. Fleischmann escaped to London and later to New York.
Life in The U.S.A.
After applying for a visa, Fleischmann arrived in New York in 1939. Her Friend and former student Helen Post Modley helped her establish a new life. The women had known each other for more than ten years before Fleischmann’s move to the USA. Helen’s stepson Peter Modley was sure the two women were romantically involved, however, his stepmother had never clearly stated anything of the sort. But she was very liberal and »versatile« and often made implications, even though she was married. In 1940 Fleischmann opened her first studio in Midtown Manhattan between 5th Avenue and Broadway and regularly visited art shows at Galerie St. Etienne.
In 1941 some of her work was published in Vogue showing »the metropolitan way to wear white«. She still took photos of celebrities: Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and even Arturo Toscanini, who allegedly hated photographers. Throughout her time in the US Fleischmann built connections and friendships with artists and like-minded people, many of whom fled Europe the way she did. She travelled the country and documented her journeys in photographs.
In 1969 she moved to Switzerland where she spent time with a close friend, went skiing and hiking. 21 years later she returned to New York to remain under the care of her nephew until her death, aged 94.
Have a look at the interactive catalogue by the Vienna Museum: