To look at portrait photography today is to see photographers pushing not only the boundaries of the medium but also pushing their subjects, experimenting with ways of portraying human beings outside their comfort zone, incorporating the uncanny and unusual more often than not. At its inception, on the other hand, portraits were constrained by the medium to the standard, stern-faced studio shot that we recognize as “the portrait.” In between these two extremes, there is a style of portraiture that finds people in their homes, at ease with the photographer and the camera, natural; for the better part of the 20th century, this was the standard.
Elizabeth Buehrmann was one of the pioneers of this style. Her portraits, which appeared in Chicago newspapers beside high praise for her work by the time she was 20 and later at the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Arts Club, showed notable artists and writers and socialites devoid of any props or scenery, simply in the places lived. She would spend hours talking with the people she was going to photograph, watching their face and getting to know their character before attempting to capture it with the camera, and she never had her subjects pose. This approach to portraiture seems obvious, even predictable, today. In Buehrmann’s time, it was new and the portraits that it produced took the art world by surprise. In a column in the Chicago Sunday American in 1906, a journalist praised her ability to capture “some of the soul along with the physical features of her sitters.”
Born c. 1886, Buehrmann’s exact birth date and place are not known; outside of the decade or so that she was actively photographic, little is known about her life. She grew up in Chicago and, at age 15, attended the Art Institute of Chicago. She began her photography career as an assistant in the studio of Eva Watson-Schütze and by age 18 was accepted as a member of Alfred Stieglitz's famed “Photo-Secession.” In 1906, she moved to London and then, in 1907, Paris. While in Europe, she studied the trends and techniques of photographers there and worked for a time in the Photo-Club de Paris. She returned home and exhibited her photographs at the Art Institute of Chicago, a show of 61 portraits, still lifes and landscapes.
By 1910, Buehrmann found her way into advertising photography, which was a new market at the time. Her eye for composition and mastery of the camera made for beautiful, spacious photographs to be filled in with text. In a show on the history of photography titled Public Eye at the New York Public Library, a scrapbook of Buehrmann’s advertising photos shows her original photos side-by-side with the final product, revealing the mastery of composition and understanding of space that made her as good an advertising photographer as she was a portrait photographer.
After exhibits at the Art Students’ League of Chicago and at the International Salons of Photography and published photos in Vogue and Vanity Fair, among others, Buehrmann’s photography career went quiet. In the 1940s, she retired to Florida and contributed to a ceramics exhibition at the Lowe Gallery, University of Miami. The exact year of her death is not known—some sources say she passed in 1954, while other say she lived until the mid 1960s.
Written by Carter Boyd
Image Sources: The Art Institute of Chicago and the New York Public Library