Looking Back at Editta Sherman ~ The Duchess of Carnegie Hall Exhibited by New York Historical Society




Editta Sherman posing for Bill Cunningham

A new documentary on Bill Cunningham aired on Amazon Prime this year (2020), shadowing the famed photographer on the streets of the city he loved, and in the iconic building where he lived much of his professional life ~ Carnegie Hall Studios ~ next door to another famed photographer, Editta Sherman.

Here, we take a look-back at Editta’s life and portrait work, which was on view at the New York Historical Society in a 2017 exhibition, The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman

Editta Sherman’s camera stands in the center of the room. It is an Eastman Kodak studio camera with Wollensak lens atop a wood and brass frame.

Editta Sherman began her career after the death of her husband in 1954, eventually photographing portraits of the ‘A’ list in art, literature, music and New York Society. She was a single mother of five young children, living and working in the rent-controlled studios above Carnegie Hall, next door to fellow photographer, Bill Cunningham.

Josef Astor standing in front of a photograph of Editta Sherman taken by Bill Cunningham.

The exhibition was divided into categories by specific art areas ~ Music, Media and Politics, Art and Literature, and Performing Arts. In the center of the room stood Editta’s Eastman Kodak studio camera with Wollensak lens atop a wood and brass frame. The use of this format (5 x 7 inch to 11 x 4inch) was to capture more detail. In the darkroom, she used a technique called dodging and burning, manipulating the exposure time of parts of the image to produce lighter or darker passages in the photograph. In her studio, Editta photographed the likes of Yul Brynner, Salvador Dali, Henry Fonda, Eva Gabor, Andy Warhol and thousands more. The camera, which belonged to her father (a photographer in New Jersey), became a gift to the New York Historical Society from her son, Kenneth Sherman.

Josef Astor sitting in Editta Sherman’s apartment, getting ready to have his portrait taken by ‘The Duchess’.

Above, Josef Astor in his documentary film, ‘Lost Bohemia,’ a film that Astor made before the last of the Carnegie Hall Studio residents were forced to move out by the City of New York. It captures the deep friendships and collaboration within the walls of this artistic enclave, where Astor also lived on the 8th floor beginning in the 1980s. The short documentary, ‘Lost Bohemia’ was on a continuous loop during the exhibition.

Editta Sherman and friend & neighbor, Bill Cunningham celebrating her birthday in the documentary, ‘Lost Bohemia.’

Above, birthday celebration in Editta’s apartment with friend and next-door neighbor, Bill Cunningham, who was the one who dubbed Editta ‘The Duchess of Carnegie Hall.‘ He would frequently have Editta dress in period costume and pose in places of significance throughout the City. like our featured image where Evitta poses in a graffiti-filled subway train.

Editta Sherman & Bill Cunningham

Above and below, Editta’s Bill Blass dress with feather shawl. The feather shawl was originally trim at the bottom edge of the dress.

Editta Sherman’s Bill Blass dress

A few interesting fact’s mentioned in Wikipedia, “Sherman was a muse of Andy Warhol who filmed her with filmmaker Paul Morrissey in the 1970s. She also appeared in the Abel Ferrara film Ms. 45 in 1981. She was a model as well as photographer and was photographed by Francesco Scavullo and symbolized aging gracefully at age 60 years old in his book “On Beauty” in the 1970s. A decade-long collaboration with her longtime friend and neighbor, William J. Cunningham, a fashion photographer for The New York Times, resulted in the Fashion Institute of Technology/Penguin Books 1978 publication of their book Facades, visually detailing 200 years of fashion and New York City architecture. In November 1967 Kodak Films sponsored a solo exhibit of Editta’s celebrity portraits in a three-week public show at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

Josef Astor portrait taken by Editta Sherman

The grand live/work space for artists was created in 1895 by Andrew  Carnegie, the steel magnate and philanthropist. He wanted to make provisions for artists to be housed, and this was accomplished in two towers, 180 studios, adjacent to the concert venue. One of the first tenants in 1898 was the American Academy of Dramatic Arts ~ with legends like Spencer Tracy, Anne Bancroft and Cecil B Demille.

A view of the exhibition, including Sherman’s large format Kodak camera

Studio 906 was turned into an Authors’ Club, with velvet chairs and desks, where Markk Twain and Theodore Roosevelt, among others, came to write. The eight floor was reserved for dance studios, with specially installed sprung floors.

In the 1950s, the Carnegie Hall Artist Studios numbered as many as 170 residents. They included such notable’s as Leonard Bernstein, Marilyn Monroe, Skitch Henderson, Marlon Brando, isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso and many many more. The Studios housed painters, poets, photographers, composers, and a ballet studio.

The Performing Arts Wall in the exhibition, The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman

Carnegie Hall was owned by the Carnegie family until 1925, when Carnegie’s widow sold it to real estate developer, Robert E. Simon. With much history associated with his ownership, Carnegie Hall was eventually sold to the City of New York for $5 million.

Below, hat with net trim; Black skull-cap of wool, plastic sequins, metal. It was one of Editta Sherman’s favorite hats, and she was often pictured wearing it; Cristobal Balenciaga Handkerchief Hat.

Editta Sherman and Bill Cunningham were one of the few last remaining residents of the Carnegie Hall Studios. Editta had been living in her 20′ x 30′ penthouse studio apartment with skylights from one end to the other, and double-height windows facing north, since 1949. They were all forced to move out by the City of New York in 2010. Their penthouse apartments were to be removed to make room for a private rooftop garden for donors and trustees.

Culture,, Media & Politics Wall in the exhibit, The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman

Editta Sherman passed away in 2013 at the age of 101. A short anecdote worth mentioning is that for 99 years, Editta had never voted. After meeting President and Mrs. Obama, she registered to vote, and voted for the first time at the age of 100.

Josef Astor speaking about his documentary. To his left stands Editta’s son, Kenneth Sherman.

The 2017 exhibition, The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman, was curated by Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator and head, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections at The New York Historical Society. The fifty selections in this exhibition were donated to the New York Historical Society by Editta Sherman’s children and grandchildren.

A celebration of the life of Bill Cunningham was exhibited by the New York Historical Society in 2018, and a documentary, The Times of Bill Cunningham, build around an interview by Mark Bozek appeared in theaters in 2020.  Bill Cunningham passed away in 2016 at the age of 87.