Editta Sherman in her Carnegie Hall studio

The Duchess of Carnegie Hall

Late Fall of my first year at Rochester Institute of Technology I realized I didn’t have the funds to make it back home to Chicago during Thanksgiving break, so I made plans to take a bus trip to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins in New York. They lived at 122nd and Broadway, not far from the campus of Columbia University. During my stay they mentioned the mother of their neighbor and friend was a photographer and she had a studio in the Carnegie Hall Building. Maybe I would like to go see her and show her some of my pictures? Of course I would! A real New York City photographer! Arrangements were made for an appointment Monday at 10am.

I arrived and made my way through the maze of hallways and back passageways to what I thought was her door on one of the upper floors. I think I had to ask directions several times and wasn’t sure I had the right place, but went ahead and tentatively knocked. I could hear a loud conversation on the other side of the door, but nothing to indicate my knock had been heard. I tried again, slightly harder, but again no response. Gradually knocking louder, I finally heard, “COME IN!” About ten feet inside the unlocked door was the neighbor’s mother, wearing an unusual dress, dramatic scarf, and elaborate wig. If she noticed me, she didn’t show it, and continued a boisterous telephone call, which I couldn’t help but overhear: Lawsuit. Copyright. The Cover! Autobiography. Henry Fonda.

After a while, she hung up and introduced herself as Editta Sherman. I was in the right place. I’ve never been sure if she knew exactly why I was there, other than her son Lloyd had sent me. But we had work to do. Henry Fonda had used Editta's dramatic b&w portrait on the cover of his new autobiography without payment or attribution. I needed to get this envelope with the original sitting proofs and hand-written explanatory note over to her lawyer right NOW. Despite not knowing New York, and not knowing much about anything, I was able to complete the errand and returned, ready for more.

Editta had quite a bit for me to do that day including fixing the studio shades and replacing lightbulbs in the tall ceiling fixtures. There were so many projects, in fact, that she suggested I return the following day when the studio was to be rented out for an Estee Lauder shoot. Yes. Just tell me when you need me.

When I arrived the following morning, I was amazed at the level of activity; how could it take so many people to take a picture?? Set stylists, wardrobe stylists, hair and make-up artists, models, ad agency people, agents, etc. The studio was claustrophobic even before everyone arrived! The photographer was a name I knew: Victor Skrebneski, from Chicago. Editta introduced me with a quick wink in my direction as her photo “assistant,” and I was put to work as the low man on the crew. I was fascinated to see the process of what seemed, after the fact, like a simple photograph.

I am ever-grateful for the warm welcome Editta gave me. Her quick temporary promotion of me from aspiring student photographer to her “assistant” allowed me a glimpse into the world of New York and photography that I’d only imagined. Less than two months later I would leave RIT and take a full-time photo assistant position with Victor Skrebneski in Chicago, where I stayed and learned for nearly three years.

The beautiful portrait work of Editta Sherman, The Duchess of Carnegie Hall, is finally getting some long overdue accolades and attention with a show at the New York Historical Society, Aug 18 - Oct 15, 2017.

See New York Times article: https://nyti.ms/2vq1RoY