One of Bill Cunningham’s best friends was Editta Sherman. Their camaraderie, developed over 40 years while living in neighboring studios at Carnegie Hall, ran deep: You can see it in the documentary Lost Bohemia, when Cunningham calls Sherman “the Duchess” while they play dress-up, or in Facades, a book project for which he photographed Sherman wearing period clothing all over New York City. Meanwhile, Sherman was an artist in her own right. A selection of her work is presented in “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman,” opening August 18 at the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History. The show celebrates Sherman’s ability to pave her way in a man’s world — she distinguished herself as an early paparazzo, coaxing celebrities into her light-filled atelier to unleash her secret weapon: an uncanny ability to put people at ease in front of the camera.
Curator Marilyn Satin Kushner organized the exhibition using Sherman’s archive, which was recently donated to the institution by Sherman’s family. Some 60 photographs reflect the sheer diversity of Sherman’s clientele: country-music star June Carter Cash, baseball heavyweight Joe DiMaggio, playwright Lillian Hellman, and athlete turned actor Canada Lee are all featured here. There’s also composer Donald Shirley, Russian actor Yul Brynner, and Betty Smith, who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Sherman was an intuitive photographer. Wearing her signature flamboyant attire (often accessorized with Cunningham-designed hats), she’d dance around a giant Kodak 8x10 view camera and use her vivacious disposition to animate her sitters. Pouring over Sherman’s work, Kushner tried to figure out what made her so good. “I thought Editta was bringing out their real personalities,” she said. A conversation with Sherman’s son set her straight. “You’re wrong,” he told Kushner. “It’s her personality reflected in them.”
Letters and invoices paint Sherman as a constant hustler. “She was a strong woman, which you had to be back then — a real dynamo,” Kushner says. Sherman learned the craft from her photographer father and originally ran a photo business with her husband, Harold, who died at 50 from diabetes, leaving Sherman with five children to support. She quickly made a name for herself as a portrait photographer whose ebullient spirit enchanted everyone she encountered. Sherman died in 2013 at age 101.
Part of Sherman’s magic took place in the darkroom, where, like a painter, she’d dodge and burn her pictures to make their shadows just so. “They have such a beautiful aura about them,” Kushner says. “Each one has that special Editta touch.”
“The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman” is on view at the New-York Historical Society from August 18 to October 15.