Kathryn Abbe, Photographer

Sept. 22, 1919 - Jan. 18, 2014 By Chris Karitevlis
Kathryn Abbe  Sept. 22, 1919 - Jan. 18, 2014

       Kathryn Abbe, who began her professional career as a freelance photographer in 1944 when few women were in the field, died at home in Brookville on Jan. 18. She was 94 and had been ill for only a week.

       Mrs. Abbe and her identical twin sister, Frances, were born to Francis and Kathryn McLaughlin in Brooklyn on Sept. 22, 1919. They grew up in Wallingford, Conn. A Voightlander camera they received as a high school graduation present sparked their lifelong passion for photography. She and her sister enrolled at Pratt Institute in the late 1930s, studying painting with Reginald Marsh, but an elective course in photography proved decisive.

       In a career spanning over 70 years, Mrs. Abbe’s photographs were on 20 major magazine covers. They also were reproduced in over 80 books and international periodicals. She exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the world, including a retrospective at the Washburn Gallery in Manhattan, a 70-year survey of her Long Island photography at the gallery of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities in Cold Spring Harbor, and a retrospective at Gallery Tosei, in Tokyo. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Akron Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, Guild Hall Museum, the International Center of Photography, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

       A co-author of three books, “Stars of the Twenties Observed,” “Twins on Twins,” and “Twin Lives in Photography,” Mrs. Abbe lectured extensively and appeared on many television programs, among them, The Dick Cavett Show. “Twin Lenses,” a documentary about  the sisters’ careers, was featured in several festivals, including the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2008.

       The sisters’ professional careers began in 1941 when they were finalists in Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris contest. A year later, Mrs. Abbe and James Abbe Jr., who also was a photographer, moved into an apartment in a brownstone on East 57th Street in Manhattan, which was later used as the prototype for a studio in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Her sister also married a photographer, Leslie Gill.

       In an era of indoor studio photography, Mrs. Abbe’s assignments were often on location outdoors. “Celebrations of the simplest events in life” is how she later described the wealth of images she captured on assignments that took her around the world, notably to Paris, Havana, New York, Rome, and Milan. Her subjects also encompassed entertainment personalities and artists. When she and Mr. Abbe were married in 1946, her success enabled her to give him a plane as a wedding gift; they both learned to fly it to their summer home in Montauk. Mr. Abbe eventually gave up photography to become an antiques dealer; he died in 1999.

       Their small house was on a 150-foot-wide bluff, 42 feet above the Atlantic, surrounded on three sides by preserved land. Wartime restrictions had allowed the purchase of only $700 in building supplies, so they added salvaged materials, including beams from the demolished Dominy house in East Hampton, paneling from sailing ships, floorboards from an old barn, and bricks from an abandoned kiln. The house and an additional small building were featured in an East Hampton Star “Home Book” a few years ago. 

In 1950, when the Abbe family moved from Manhattan to Brookville, Mrs. Abbe gave up professional assignments but continued to photograph, with her children as subjects. Her photographs were purchased to illustrate articles in Parents magazine, Good Housekeeping, and Better Homes and Gardens.

       In Brookville, the couple joined the Religious Society of Friends and raised their three children as Quakers. Mrs. Abbe held the position of clerk of the Jericho Monthly Meeting for over 20 years. She was also a member of the board of trustees of Friends Academy in Locust Valley.

       Mrs. Abbe is survived by her sister, Frances McLaughlin-Gill of New York City, a daughter, Lucinda Abbe of Jackson, Wy., two sons, Thomas Abbe of Brookville and Eli Abbe of Palo Alto, Calif., and a stepson, James Abbe III of New York City. A niece and five grandchildren also survive.

       Memorial donations have been suggested to QUNO, the Quaker United Nations Office, 777 U.N. Plaza, Fifth Floor, New York 10017.

By Chris Karitevlis