James Abbe was born in 1883 in Alfred, Maine. He traveled throughout Europe as a young photojournalist recording the unstable power struggles of the early 20th century. However, he first made a name for himself photographing movie stars in New York, Paris, and London throughout the 1920s and 1930s. His unusual technique of working outside the studio set him apart from other photographers of the period. To make money, Abbe sold his photographs to magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, which brought his subjects greater fame.
After gaining some public attention, Abbe began submitting his work to major publications, including The London Magazine and the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. He also took photographs during the Spanish Civil War and the Nazis' rise in Germany.
"His life would make a good movie," his daughter Tilly said. In the 1920s and '30s Abbe photographed politicians, stage and film stars—Hitler and Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin and Josephine Baker—and scored the biggest coup of his career when he finagled his way into the Kremlin and, according to Miss Tilly, "tricked" Stalin into posing for him. The result: a rare snapshot of the Soviet dictator smiling. His portrait of Joseph Stalin was famously used to stop rumors that the Soviet leader was dead.
"He called his photography 'a ticket' to the world," Tilly says. "It was partly because of him that I became a dancer. In fact, I'm named after a dancer he photographed, Tilly Losch. He loved ballet, and his favorite subject to photograph was Anna Pavlova. I knew how much he loved dancers, and of course it was very important to me to please my father."
Abbe was married several times and had a number of children.
According to a 2006 interview with his daughter, Tilly Abbe, he was married three times before he met her mother, Irene, and abandoned his third wife and three children to marry Irene. Tilly was born when her father was 56 years old, which would have been about 1939.
One of the obituaries for Patience mentions that she had a surviving (presumably step-)sister Linda.
Abbe’s book I Photograph Russia was published in 1934. This work includes eighty photographs taken by Abbe.
- Jeffrey, Ian et al. (1997). The Photography Book. London: Phaidon Press Limited. ISBN 0-7148-4488-8
- "Abbe, James." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Retrieved February 9, 2009.
- James Abbe Photographer: Through November 5, 2000, Chrysler Museum of Art, text from Resource Library Magazine, revised March 18, 2011, retrieved January 16, 2013.
- James Abbe at Luminous Lint.
- Edward Guthmann, "Little girls flock to Miss Tilly to learn the magic of dance: Her school, an institution for decades, relies strictly on word-of-mouth", San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 2006.
- "James Abbe, Photographer and Art Dealer, 87", The New York Times, October 21, 1999.
- "Patience Abbe, Chronicler of Her Childhood Travels, Dies at 87" New York Times, March 31, 2012
- "Little girls flock to Miss Tilly to learn the magic of dance", "San Francisco Chronicle", November 12, 2006
- Alayna Schulman, "Writer Patience Abbe, 87, of Redding dies: Best-seller recounted life in prewar Europe", The Record Searchlight, March 18, 2012.