Lette Valeska: Stars Without Glamour
Since September 2023, the Municipal Museum in Braunschweig has been showcasing the exhibition: “Stars Without Glamour.” The exhibition, for the first time in Germany, features portrait photographs by the Braunschweig artist Valeska Heymann, nee Heinemann. Not only are the images interesting, but equally compelling is the life story of this Braunschweig native. Undoubtedly, she too belonged to the “Strong Women of Braunschweig.” The exhibition can be visited until January 7, 2023.
When I discovered the exhibition poster on a billboard in early autumn this year, my interest was immediately piqued. A German artist who photographed Hollywood stars? That sounds intriguing. As I prefer attending such events as part of a public guided tour, I only get the chance in December.
Valeska Heinemann, later known as Lette Valeska, is already over 60 years old when her career begins in the United States. Although Valeska has been interested in photography since her childhood, her life initially takes different paths. Born in 1885 as the daughter of a secular Jewish entrepreneurial family, Valeska has three brothers: Ludwig, Walter, and Fritz. Two of the brothers die in the war, Walter initially goes to Palestine as a doctor and later emigrates to the USA. The siblings reunite there. Valeska attends the Lyceum (“Die kleine Burg”) and has been friends with Galka Scheyer since her school days. Through this friendship, she becomes aware of the Lette Verein in Berlin, founded in 1890, a photographic training institute where she undergoes training.
Initially, Valeska works as a secretary in Brussels. When she meets her future husband, Ernst Heymann, she leaves the Lion City in 1920 and moves to Frankfurt, where the entrepreneur owns a factory for chemical-pharmaceutical products. In 1932, the couple, along with their little daughter, moves to Paris to open a branch of the company. When the small family wants to return to Frankfurt in 1937, the anti-Jewish Nazi regime thwarts their plans; the chemical factory is confiscated and dissolved in 1939. The Heynemanns emigrate to the USA. In 1938, the couple separates, and Valeska, on the advice of her childhood friend Galka Scheyer, goes to Los Angeles. Ten years later, her ex-partner commits suicide.
Stars in Everyday Poses
To support herself, Valeska returns to her childhood hobby: photography. Initially, she is commissioned to photograph elementary school children. Her unconventional way of capturing students attracts attention. Among the mothers is the wife of film producer David O. Selznik, who commissions Valeska to photograph her daughter. Other Hollywood giants also have their offspring captured by Valeska. Over time, the artist can make a living from her work and buys a house in 1942. Two years later, she acquires American citizenship. Selznik eventually hires the German photographer for his studio. From 1947 to 1953, Valeska works for various Hollywood studios, with her trademark being to portray stars in everyday poses. And all the “greats” are there: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye, Louis Jourdan, Greta Garbo, and Joseph Cotton, to name a few.
First, Glamour Photography Prevailed
Before stars allowed themselves to be photographed by Lette Valeska, Hollywood was dominated by the dictate of glamour photography. The studios selected the photographers of the stars. Taking the right pictures could easily take 10 – 12 hours. As long as it took for the pose, the light, and the associated flawless image to be perfect. Photographer George Harrell was considered a master of retouching at the time. Journalists were bombarded with this type of shot, up to 100,000 photos were produced by MGM alone per star. Working for studios was a purely male affair at the time. Besides Lette Valeska, Ruth Harriet Louise was the only female photographer. Louise worked in Hollywood from 1925 to 1930 and passed away in 1940. Valeska gave up her press card in 1953. The exact reason is not known. There are two theories: on the one hand, it could have been because she worked in a male-dominated field. On the other hand, it could also be that Galka Scheyer, who died in 1945, had appointed Valeska as her executor, and the photographer was occupied with this task. At the age of 70, Valeska begins painting and sculpting, which she teaches herself. Thematically, she processes the persecution of Jews in her works.
Order of Merit, First Class
For her services to Scheyer, Lette Valeska received the Order of Merit, First Class, at the age of 88. She would have liked to visit her hometown of Braunschweig again as part of this award ceremony – but, in fact, she did not receive an invitation. Twelve years later, just before her 100th birthday, the artist dies in Los Angeles. Thus ends the life of an impressive and strong woman from Braunschweig. At Petritorwall 2, the family’s last domicile, there is a commemorative plaque; at Bruchtorwall 1, there is a stumbling block for the artist.