The always self-effacing Zaida Ben Yusuf once remarked, "About myself there is very little that would be of interest, aside from my photography work." Born Esther Zeghdda Ben Youseph Nathan in London, England on November 21, 1869, she was the first-born daughter of Algerian Moussa and Anna Kind Ben Youseph Nathan. By 1881, Mrs. Youseph Nathan, who would change her surname to Ben-Yusuf, was separated from her husband and working as a governess to support her four daughters who ranged in age from 3 to 11. A decade later, Anna Ben-Yusuf was working as a milliner in Boston, and her eldest daughter would arrive in New York City four years' later.
Originally a milliner herself, the young woman later recalled becoming interested in photography solely as a leisure pastime. While traveling abroad, she took no photographs of her trip, admitting, "I did not have the 'Kodak craze' at all." However, by 1896, Miss Ben-Yusuf began thinking about photography as a vocation, and some of her photographs were featured in a Cosmopolitan Magazine article entitled, "Some Examples of Recent Art." Shortly thereafter, she exhibited one of her photographs at the Fourth Photographic Salon of the Linked Ring, and would later meet with Linked Ring co-founder George Davison. After seeing her work, Mr. Davison, who also wrote a monthly column for the American Amateur Photographer, encouraged her to continue pursuing a career in photography. She opens a portrait studio on 124 Fifth Avenue in New York City, and soon attracts the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, who published some of her portraits in Camera Notes in 1897.
Four years' later, Miss Ben-Yusuf began her famous association with The Saturday Evening Post, with her first photographic essay entitled "Celebrities Under the Camera," which included her portraits of such personages as soon-to-be President Theodore Roosevelt, author Edith Wharton, and Buddhist priest Ekai Kawaguchi. At the time, her approach to photography was described as "artistic in the extreme." She considered herself an artist as much as a pictorialist photographer, and was more interested in the aesthetic possibilities of light and shadow than she was in mechanical processes. In 1903, she traveled to Japan, and her photoessay in The Saturday Evening Post was for many Americans their first exposure to the exotic Far East.
Miss Ben-Yusuf retired from photography after World War I, and in 1924 began working for the New York-based Reed Fashion Service, and began lecturing on fashion topics in department stores. She was later appointed style director of the Retail Millinery Association, and in 1930 married textile designer Frederick J. Norris. Sixty-three-year-old Zaida Ben-Yusuf died at Brooklyn's Methodist Episcopal Hospital on September 30, 1933. Sadly, like many of her female contemporaries, her contributions to photography were quickly forgotten, but happily, this relative anonymity changed when an exhibit entitled "Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer" was featured at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery from April through September of 2008.
1899 The Amateur Photographer, Vol. XI (New York: The Outing Company, Limited), pp. 120-
1903 Current Literature, Vol. XXXIV (New York: Current Literature Publishing Co.), p. 21
2007 La Bricoleuse (URL: http://labricoleuse.livejournal.com/21126.html).
2008 National Portrait Gallery (URL: http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/zaida/chronology/ ).
1978 The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. .167-172.
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