David Attie’s Champions

“… at a time when you could claim notoriety for posting videos of kitten climbing out of cardboard boxes, my father and his work had all but vanished.”

On July 20th, a new exhibit opens at Brooklyn Historical Society that highlights the 1950’s Brooklyn street photography of the late fine art and commercial photographer David Attie.

Despite a successful and wide-ranging career – which included frequent covers and spreads for Vogue, Time, Newsweek, Playboy, and Harper’s, portraits of everyone from Bobby Fischer to Lorraine Hansberry to Leiber & Stoller, and his own book of photographs, 1977’s Russian Self-Portraits (Harper & Row)– Attie’s work had largely faded from public view until a few years ago. That’s when one of Attie’s sons, Eli Attie, got the idea of reviving his father’s giant archive.

As Eli tells it in his afterword to last year’s collection of Attie’s Brooklyn work, Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote, With the Lost Photographs of David Attie (The Little Bookroom, 2015), his father passed away in the 80’s, “nearly a decade before the Internet, which turned out to be a uniquely modern curse. Because, at a time when you could claim notoriety for posting videos of kitten climbing out of cardboard boxes, my father and his work had all but vanished.”

David Attie, Truman Capote

Truman Capote. Photograph by David Attie.

… [Eli] made an astounding discovery: hundreds of unseen negatives of a young Truman Capote… which hinted at an early professional relationship between the two young artists.

Together with his brother Oliver and their mother Dotty Attie (a successful and highly acclaimed painter in her own right), Eli started rummaging through the long-untouched boxes of negatives in the Manhattan brownstone where he grew up and where his mother still lives. There, in 2014, he made an astounding discovery: hundreds of unseen negatives of a young Truman Capote and his then-neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, which hinted at an early professional relationship between the two young artists.

As Eli eventually discovered, his father first came to work with Capote in the late 1950s through his teacher and mentor, Alexey Brodovitch, the famed Harper’s Bazaar art director (and mentor to Richard Avedon and Irving Penn). Brodovitch gave Attie his first-ever professional assignment: creating a series of photo montages to illustrate the first publication of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (This was originally intended for Bazaar, but ultimately appeared in Esquire.)

“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”

Soon after a successful collaboration with Attie on Tiffany’s, Capote was commissioned to write an essay for Holiday magazine about his life in Brooklyn Heights. The essay, which famously begins, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice,” describes a neighborhood that bears little resemblance to the Heights of today. Presumably, Capote wanted to work once again with the young photographer who had illustrated Tiffany’s, and Attie was hired for the job.

Hence, on a spring day in 1958, after taking series of portraits in Capote’s Willow Street home, the two men wandered the streets of Brooklyn Heights and down to the waterfront, Attie with Rolleiflex camera in hand as they documented Capote’s favorite local haunts and characters. Attie took additional photos on his own, on subsequent days (including portraits of Heights resident W.E.B. Du Bois in his home and garden). The result is remarkable, both as art and as a historic time capsule: Capote at a chain-link fence at Fulton Ferry landing; dockworkers laboring on the waterfront; children jumping rope on the sidewalk and doing homework on their stoops. Only four photos ended up in the original Holiday spread (and none of the still-emerging Capote himself), of roughly 800 that were taken.

Jump Rope, by David Attie

Jump Rope. Photograph by David Attie.

These are the images displayed in BHS’s exhibit (some, but not all, of which were included in last year’s stunning coffee-table book). They tell the tale of a Brooklyn long past. But they also underscore a story of numerous David Attie champions, separated by nearly six decades, without whom we would not be seeing this extraordinary work.

The exhibit Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie opens on July 20th and runs till July 2017. On display are 40 prints — 18 printed by Attie himself, the remainder archival ink-jet prints from Attie’s original negatives. Also on view are an assortment of Attie’s contact sheets with his original grease-pencil markings, and two signed letters from Truman Capote that discuss Attie and his work.

Three Dogs, by David Attie

Three Dogs. Photograph by David Attie.

Learn more about this and other exhibitions on our website.

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