This Self-Made Photographer Captured—and Charmed—Decades of New York Stars

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This post was curated from an article written by Alexxa Gotthardt for Artsy

For 61 years, photographer Editta Sherman, who lived to be 101, worked and slept in a rent-controlled studio apartment high above Carnegie Hall. There, donning feather-accented costumes and dark red lipstick, she photographed an impressive cast of creatives—from Charlton Heston and June Carter Cash to Andy Warhol and Tilda Swinton. All this she accomplished, by and large, on her own.

“She was a woman in a man’s world, and a woman who succeeded at what she did in a man’s world,” says Marilyn Kushner, curator of “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman” at the New-York Historical Society. The retrospective tells the story of Sherman’s bohemian spirit and unbounded tenacity—characteristics that helped her forge her own path through the male-dominated society of the mid-19th century, and a barrage of other challenges.

Sherman was born in Philadelphia in 1912 to Italian immigrant parents. Her father, Nunzio Rinaolo, was a wedding photographer who taught her the intricacies of his craft from a young age. But it wasn’t until years later that she put his lessons to professional use.

In 1935, Sherman married a man by the name of Harold. She promptly produced five children and stayed at home with her brood while her husband earned a healthy living. But when his diabetes diagnosis took a turn for the worse and he could no longer work, it was up to Sherman to keep the family afloat. Searching for a solution, she turned to her dormant photography skills.

At the time, the family lived on Martha’s Vineyard, and it was there that Sherman established her first studio. Her roadside sign boldly advertised “Camera studies by Editta Sherman,” a rare female-owned enterprise during this era, though the studio began as a joint effort between the couple: He drummed up business in town, and Sherman worked her magic behind the camera for those he brought back.

Her favored subjects became the writers, actors, and artists who summered on the Massachusetts island, who were often in need of portraits for their book covers or playbills. Writer Max Eastman and actor Raymond Massey, two of her first sitters, spread news of Sherman’s talents and buoyant behind-camera personality to their communities.

But bringing in enough clients and money to buoy a family of seven proved to be a constant struggle. So when Sherman learned of an inexpensive studio opportunity in New York, situated right above the performing arts mecca Carnegie Hall, she and her family made the move. All seven of the Shermans, attended by no small amount of photo equipment, packed into the bathroom-less 20×30-foot studio.

There, in Studio 1208 at 881 7th Avenue, two blocks south of Central Park, Sherman established her famed portrait den, where she lived and worked from 1950 until 2010. But while the apartment was nestled in a thicket of potential clients, it came with its own issues.

Families were not allowed to live in the building and, when the Shermans were found out, Editta and her husband were “faced with a decision that no parent wants to make,” says Kushner. Reluctantly, they sent their children to a group home on Staten Island, where they could continue to support them through Sherman’s photography practice. But in 1954, Harold passed away, leaving Sherman with the studio to fund her family’s life on her own.

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