In June of 1998, I was spending a day at Pike Place Market in Seattle, a busy hive of shops where one can find anything from fresh fish to antique postcards. I was in a quiet corner of a shop specializing in the latter, when I was stopped, frozen, by an image that still fascinates me to this day. I of course bought the postcard, and began a hunt for more information on the subject and the photographer.
The subject was Bessie Love, who in 1915 started out in silent pictures directed by D.W. Griffith and worked for decades, including many character roles in sound pictures when she was older. The more I learned about her, the more I liked her.
In 1924, a Photoplay reporter who had drawn the short straw accompanied a film company to the Texas plains in winter, and wrote this about a night spent in a tent there:
“It was very cold and dismal and the uninhabited prairie outside depressed us. And then the girl, sort of casually, picked up her ukelele — dread instrument of torture as a rule — and holding it cockily under her left arm began to sing. I am not very poetic as a rule, but the thought that still comes to my memory of that evening is ‘a brown wren turned into a nightingale.’ And so she did. Bessie Love sang for us — all sorts of songs, funny little character songs that she had picked up, heaven alone knows where! — jazzy, daring, tantalizing little songs; tender, crooning things that have outlived the centuries — and we forgot the snow outside, and the penetrating cold, and the tent became a happy, congenial, friendly place where a man would rather be than almost any place he could think of.”
The resulting western, Sundown, was one of five films Love made in 1924, and was followed by five more in 1925, including Soul-Fire, shot on location in Florida. After this film, Love chose to take a holiday, and traveled to Paris.
There, a photographer named James Abbe asked her to pose for some fashion photography, dressed in outfits by Jean Patou, photos to appear in Vogue magazine, and in The Tatler in England. Abbe was one of the most famous photographers in fashion and entertainment, on both sides of the Atlantic. His lighting was his signature, lighting that captured the drama of the stage and the beauty and character of its performers, and he took great pains to ensure that everything was perfect.
Before the shoot, Abbe sent Love to get her hair bobbed, “really neat and chic and combed back.” He chose from all the available Patou outfits, and also a ballet costume. And during changes, while Abbe set up the lighting for the next shot, Bessie Love would sit and warm herself at the iron stove in Abbe’s studio. And there, in a moment, Abbe saw an image that would become one of his most famous.
One writer characterized the resulting photograph, later titled “Changing Clothes,” as “beguilingly innocent,” but really I think it is beyond description. It just is.
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James Abbe went on to become one of the most famous photojournalists of his era, taking pictures of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and being the first western photographer to gain permission to photograph Joseph Stalin.
Bessie Love made 141 films in all, including the Oscar-nominated Broadway Melody (1929), making appearances in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), Isadora (1968), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Ragtime (1981), Reds (1981) and The Hunger (1983). She wrote her autobiography, From Hollywood with Love, in 1977. It’s delightful.
But I am most grateful that, for a moment in 1925, Bessie Love paused to warm her hands, that James Abbe was paying attention, and that years later someone thought to put the postcard on a rack at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
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Sources: Photographs of Bessie Love in a ballet costume from The Tatler, December 16, 1925); Around the World in Eleven Years (1936) by Patience, Richard and John Abbe; Stars of the Twenties, Observed by James Abbe (1975) by Mary Dawn Earley, with an introduction by Lillian Gish; From Hollywood with Love (1977) by Bessie Love, with an introduction by Kevin Brownlow; Limelight: Photographs by James Abbe (1995) by Terence Pepper; Shooting Stalin: The Wonderful Years of Photographer James Abbe (2004), edited by Bodo von Dewitz and Brooks Johnson, with text by Terence Pepper.