Feb 21, 2021
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From secular salons to slaughterhouses: how the incredible Madame d’Ora became the first successful female photographer

From secular salons to slaughterhouses: how the incredible Madame d'Ora became the first successful female photographer

Dora Callmus

She has photographed some of the greatest artists of the 20th century – Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Picasso – and iconic designers such as Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga. She is called the first fashion photographer in history. Today we invite you to learn about the life and work of Madame d’Ora.

Madame d’Ora (née Dora Callmus) has taken more than 200,000 photographs during her half-century career, according to some estimates! Although she has collaborated with publications such as Vogue Paris, Tatler and Vanity Fair, her name is not widely known today. But it was Madame d’Ora who made a significant contribution to transforming photography from an amateur activity into a commercially successful and women-oriented profession.

Portrait of Dora Callmus by Oskar StockerPortrait of Dora Callmus by Oskar Stocker

She was also the official photographer of L’Officiel and at the time cataloged fashion collections from Paris for buyers and magazine editors. She photographed all the couture outfits of every fashion house, every season. Cristobal Balenciaga always sent his brand’s models to her studio ahead of Paris runway shows to photograph the outfits for the pages of magazines and department stores, including Macy’s in Manhattan. At the same time, she was not known to the general public, because at that time the photographers were not mentioned by name in magazines.

Portrait of a model, studio Madame d'OraPortrait of a model, studio Madame d’Ora

But it was not only in the glamorous world of fashion that Dora, a Jewish born in Austria, had to prove herself. She was one of the last foreigners to continue to run her studio during the Nazi occupation of Paris. But then she still had to leave the capital and hide on a farm in Ardèche in the south of France. Her sister, who remained in Paris, and her family were sent to a concentration camp, where they died.

Madame d’Ora’s archives have been gathering dust on the shelf for a long time. So, after her death in 1963, all of her creative legacy passed to private German collectors. It wasn’t until the 1980s that art critic Monica Faber discovered an archive containing 5,000 of her photographs and began to painstakingly piece together the story of a woman’s distinguished career as a photographer.

Portrait of the actress Elsie Altmann-Loos, 1922Portrait of the actress Elsie Altmann-Loos, 1922

For Dora, photography once became the key to freedom. She was born in 1881 to a fairly wealthy family in Vienna. When she was 11 years old, at the age of only 39, her mother died, since then Dora and her sister Anna Malvina were raised by their paternal grandmother. In her youth, she wanted to become an actress or fashion designer, but Dora’s ambitions were not understood by her father, lawyer Philip Callmus. While on vacation on the French Riviera, she bought her first Kodak camera – and it was the beginning of a new life.

I wanted to dive into a world that I thought could be mine,

– Dora later recalled.

Dolly's sisters dancers and actressesDolly’s sisters dancers and actresses

However, it was not easy for her to immerse herself in this world at that time – it was almost impossible for women to officially receive the education of a photographer. But Dora did not give up her dream and persistently began to gain experience.

She first visited the studio of the photographer Hans Makart to learn the basics from him, and soon became the first woman admitted to theoretical courses at the Vienna Research Institute of Graphics, but not to its practical seminars. Dora again had to look for practice herself: from 1906 she took lessons in photography and retouching from Nikola Perscheid in Berlin. Perscheid recognizes her extraordinary talent and describes her in her recommendation as “the best student of all time.”

Exhibition of Madame d'Ora's works at Leopold Mueum, Vienna, 2018Exhibition of Madame d’Ora’s works at Leopold Mueum, Vienna, 2018

After that, she returned to Vienna, and in 1907, having obtained a license, she opened her first atelier at 24 Wipplingerstrasse, in the first district of Vienna, together with Arthur Benda. At the same time, Dora also came up with her own creative pseudonym – Madame d’Ora. Benda, who was more technically gifted, was in charge of printing photos and also behind the camera, but Dora was in charge of creative decisions. She was the director and, as they would say today, the creative director of all filming, found new artistic solutions and stage ideas.

Portrait of the actress Greta Jacobson, 1917Portrait of the actress Greta Jacobson, 1917

She also photographed ordinary people, but quickly became known in the artistic circles of Vienna and took up photographic portraits of famous people of that era: the first artist she photographed was Gustav Klimt in 1908. The last will be Pablo Picasso in 1956.

Portrait of Pablo PicassoPortrait of Pablo Picasso

Ballerina Anna Pavlova, playwright Arthur Schnitzler, muse of many intellectuals Alma Mahler-Werfel, fashion designer Emilia Flege and many other bohemians also posed for her.

Portrait of Anna Pavlova, 1913Portrait of Anna Pavlova, 1913

For a decade, she secured her place as the most prominent portrait painter in the country, and she was even allowed to photograph the coronation of Emperor Charles I in 1916, and later she made a series of portraits of the entire imperial family.

Emperor Charles I with his son Otto, 1916Emperor Charles I with his son Otto, 1916

At that time, studio portraits were rather conservative and lacked an abundance of details in the setting. Madame d’Ora completely reformed this aesthetics – she furnished her atelier like a home and added intimacy, trying to reveal the inner state and characters of her characters.

She was charming and funny. She talked to people and helped them relax

– this is how Dora’s method of work was described.

Portrait of the actor Harry Walden, 1916Portrait of the actor Harry Walden, 1916

Portrait of a Woman, 1915Portrait of a Woman, 1915

And those who were lucky enough to pose for her noted that in the photo of Madame d’Ora they always turned out more beautiful and more elegant than they seemed to themselves – and it was Dora who helped them see this beauty in themselves.

Make me beautiful, madame d’Ora,

– such a joking appeal from clients later served as the name of one of the exhibitions organized already today, because it so accurately reflects her talent.

Portrait of the actress Helena YarmichPortrait of the actress Helena YarmichPortrait of Professor Alfred Roller, 1909Portrait of Professor Alfred Roller, 1909

In 1927, after handing over the Viennese atelier to her partner Benda, she finally moved to Paris, where she had also opened her own studio two years earlier.

There Madame d’Ora, too, immediately found herself in the center of social life. She was a regular photographer for the actor and singer Maurice Chevalier, and also photographed Josephine Baker, Tamara de Lempicka, Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel.

Portrait of Maurice ChevalierPortrait of Maurice Chevalier

After World War II, Dora returned to her profession, again becoming a secular photographer, but now it was more of a way of earning money. At this time, another direction appears in her work. The unspeakable horrors of war have changed her photographic style and she leaves the studio for the first time.

In 1946, she returned to Austria and for the United Nations created a series of monumental and emotional photographs of displaced persons and refugee camps.

Photo of refugees, 1948Photo of refugees in the camp, 1948

And from 1949 to 1958, d’Ora worked on a project that she herself called her big final work. It is known as the slaughterhouse series. During these years, the photographer visited many different slaughterhouses and captured scenes familiar to these places: horse embryos in a trash can, slaughtered rabbits and skinned lambs.

Photo with abattoirs

In 1959, Dora got into a car accident, as a result of which she lost her memory. She spent the last years of her life next to her deceased sister’s friend in the small town of Fronleiten in Austria. She died in 1963 at the age of 82.

Portrait of Colette, 1954Portrait of Colette, 1954

In 1958, her last lifetime exhibition of works was held, in which Jean Cocteau described her multifaceted talent and her remarkable ability to capture both the embodiment of beauty and the pathos of death and suffering.

Madame d’Ora, enveloped in a wing of genius, walks through the labyrinth, whose minotaur follows from the Dolly sisters to the terrible bestiary of the abattoir, where this ageless woman, with a clearer mind than any young man, repels the assassins with one gesture and sets her camera in their place before the daily sacrifice of our predatory cult,

– said then Cocteau.

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