BY: RAMONA DUOBA
David Attie was a prominent photographer known for creating montages by stacking negatives. Today we would refer to this as photoshop, but back in the 1950s, there was no catchy term for the method. Attie’s technique was not the result of careful experiments but of a critical mistake in the darkroom that would ultimately lead him to great commercial success.
Attie began his career as an illustrator. During his WW II army service, he painted pin-up girls on the noses of combat planes. After the war, he continued his work illustrating everything from cigarette ads to magazine spreads to covers of romance novels. As magazines and publishing houses turned to photographs, Attie was forced to adapt. He enrolled in a photography course with Alexey Brodovitch, a longtime art director of Harper’s Bazaar and a mentor of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. “Any photographer, big or small, that emanated from his orbit had a distinct talent and gift for the medium. He (Brodovitch) was the leading guru to photographers of his generation,” said Keith de Lellis.
“One night, in his makeshift apartment darkroom on 55th Street, my father was developing the film for his very first assignment – photos of the original Penn Station, before its demolition. He realized he’d underexposed every single frame,” wrote Eli Attie in an essay about his father. “In a desperate panic, he started layering the negatives together, to create usable images – and in the process, created moody, impressionistic montages.”
It may have been a desperate move to salvage the images, but Brodovitch was captivated. This one darkroom accident prompted Brodovitch to offer his student an assignment to illustrate a new work by an emerging writer, Truman Capote. The result was Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and it ran in the November 1958 issue of Esquire with the byline-photographs by David Attie. “They were both innovators and pioneers in their respective artforms and the association with Capote was one of Attie’s career highpoints,” said de Lellis. “He would go on to be a creative force whose vision was way ahead of his time and even prescient by today’s standards.” His career was launched, and Attie would continue to land covers and spreads for Vogue, Time, Newsweek, and Bazaar.
A new exhibition, David Attie: Visual Communication, opens Thursday, March 18, at the Keith de Lellis Gallery in NYC. Attie’s montage work was unique among photographers of his time, “His pictures were dramatic, complex and brilliantly executed. In color or black and white,” said de Lellis. He veered from the traditional, inspired by the creative process, “That darkroom accident somehow freed him – to start seeing with his mind’s eye, to embrace the unusual, to use the darkroom not just to develop film, but to develop ideas,” said Eli Attie. His artwork still looks fresh and modern today, and as de Lellis explains, “He was a photographer made for the photoshop era decades before that was even invented.”
David Attie: Visual Communication at the Keith de Lellis Gallery in NYC from March 18 to May 27, 2021.