David Attie: Visual Communication at Keith de Lellis Gallery




David Attie, Untitled, c. 1970. Image courtesy of the Gallery

Something kind of special from Keith de Lellis Gallery, with a statement by the photographer’s son, ‘How my father David Attie invented Photoshop in the 1950s. And had his career launched by Truman Capote‘ ~ by Eli Attie. Yes, it got our attention.

“Okay, my father didn’t invent Photoshop. But looking at his stunning photo-montages, from an era long before personal computers – and even longer before everyone with an iPhone became a poor man’s Ansel Adams – you’d be forgiven for thinking someone slipped him a prototype. The fact is, David Attie was creating complex, densely-layered compositions with the technological equivalent of a rock and a hammer. Not bad for a guy who completely, irretrievably botched his first photo assignment.”
So who was David Attie?
“My father was born in Brooklyn in 1920. After the Second World War, he embarked on a successful career as a commercial illustrator, drawing everything from cigarette ads to magazine spreads to the covers of trashy romance novels.”


David Attie, Self-Portrait, c. 1965. Image courtesy of the Gallery.

But by the end of the 1950s, illustration was dying, and dying fast, as magazines and publishing houses were turning to photography. My father decided to make the switch, and signed up for Alexey Brodovitch’s photography course at The New School in New York. Brodovitch, the longtime art director of Harper’s Bazaar, mentor of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, is considered one of the fathers of modern magazine design. He was a very big deal. And a very tough teacher. If he didn’t like your work, he’d rip you to pieces.”

One night, my father was developing the film for his very first class assignment, when he realized he’d underexposed every single frame. There wasn’t one usable image. And the class was the next day. In other words, he was toast—and so was his new career. In a desperate panic, he started layering the negatives together, to create usable images – and in the process, created moody, impressionistic montages. His life must have been flashing before his eyes, and at the wrong exposure.

Brodovitch loved the montages. In fact, he spent the entire class gushing over them. And on the final night of the course, he offered my father his first-ever professional assignment: to illustrate a new work by an emerging young writer, Truman Capote. The work was Breakfast At Tiffany’s. It ran in Esquire, the first full-page occupied by one of my dad’s now-signature montages. Not bad for a first-timer. But I shall come to that.

David Attie, Untitled, c. 1970. Image courtesy of the Gallery.

“My father’s work was always wide-ranging. His straight portraiture and street photography were fantastic. But more than any other style, the montages became his voice. A way to express things that couldn’t be captured by the naked eye. A way to make photographic paper his canvass. A way to be different.”

His background in illustration no doubt shaped these montages. In fact, he acknowledged this himself; he would often photograph backgrounds and foregrounds separately, and combine them in the darkroom. A standard illustration technique.

But here’s what I find fascinating: his work as an illustrator was good, but pedestrian. He never tried to experiment. He never tried to invent. He never tried to be different. Until 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.”

David Attie, Flatiron Building, c. 1958. Image courtesy of the Gallery.
My father once wrote, “My first impulse when I started out was to do battle with photography, to produce images that were anti-photographic. I have never made peace with photography in its simplest expression. I feel the need to interfere in some way with the making of a photograph. I don’t seem to have the ability to leave things alone. It only seems to work for me when I complicate the endeavor. The ideal photograph for me is one that cannot be seen in a viewfinder or even in nature.”
“And yet it took a technical mishap to unlock that impulse. There’s a lesson in it, and I think it applies to anyone doing creative work. Who needs to invent Photoshop? The real task is to invent yourself.”
My father’s switch to photography worked out extremely well for him. He was, until his passing in 1982, highly prolific and his work appeared in books and magazines, on album covers, even on NYC subway posters. He had gallery shows, published a beautiful book of his own photographs taken in the Soviet Union, Russian Self-Portraits (Harper & Row, 1977), and landed prints in the National Portrait Gallery.”

David Attie, Grand Central Station, c. 1958
He passed away nearly a decade before the Internet. As a result, his work pretty much vanished.”

David Attie: Visual Communication will be on view from March 18 to June 16, 2021 at Keith de Lellis Gallery located in the historic Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, Suite 703, NYC. By appointment Monday ~ Friday. Please wear a face mask.