Clara Estelle Sipprell

Clara Sipprell - Smithsonian Institute Collection
Clara Sipprell - Smithsonian Institute Collection

Time Period

1910-1940

Subject Categories

Arts

Notable Facts

Best known for her work in photography during the pictorialist movement. Recipient of numerous awards and published works and set-up exhibitions in the United States and Europe. Cityscape, "New York - Old and New" was one of the first photographs obtained by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s.

Personal Information

Date of Birth

1885

Date of Death

1975

Primary Residence

Manchester

Ethnicity

Caucasian

Historical Significance

Clara E. Sipprell is best known for her work as a portrait photographer during the pictorialist movement. She proved to be one of the leading practitioners in the United States of this aesthetic art form, which involved creating photographs with a soft focus, giving them the visage of a painting. She received numerous awards in exhibitions and published works in United States and European magazines. Sipprell often took photographs of prominent people in the arts and government, in addition to the many individuals she encountered in her worldly travels to Yugoslavia, Russia, Italy, Mexico, and Sweden. Some of her most famous subjects were the members of Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre, King Gustav of Sweden, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Edwin Markham, and Pearl Buck.

Born in Tilsenburg, Ontario in 1885, Sipprell moved with her mother at the age of ten to Buffalo, New York where her brother Francis James Sipprell owned a portrait studio. It was here where she began her life's work, leaving school at the age of sixteen to devote all of her time to the studio,eventually becoming a partner in the business. During this period, artificial lighting was growing in popularity among photographers, including her brother. However, many sources indicate that Sipprell developed her own standards as she continued using natural light, never cropping her photographs, or retouching her negatives. She used a large 8" by 10" camera, usually with a soft-focus lens. Unlike many modern photographers who take hundreds of photographs and then choose the best, Sipprell "stalked" her subjects, studied them and then shot only when she really felt she had caught the "moment of light."

Sipprell won numerous prizes through the Buffalo Camera Club at a time when women were forbidden to have membership.

At the age of thirty, in 1915, Sipprell moved to New York City with Jessica Beers and opened her own photographic studio in Greenwich Village. She also became the contract photographer for the Ethical Culture School, where Beers worked as a principal. She gained considerable technical knowledge during her time in New York City through contact with leading photographers in the city. She joined the Pictorial Photographers of America, the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, and the Arts Club of Washington.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of high acclaim for Sipprell, as she received many prizes from various exhibitions at home and abroad for not only her portraits, but also her still-lifes and landscapes. Her cityscape, "New York - Old and New" was one of the first photographs obtained by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s.

Throughout her stay in New York City, Sipprell spent her summers in Vermont. Her connection with Thetford began in 1917 when she took a series of photographs for Camp Hamoum, a girls' overnight camp located on Thetford Hill. Two years later, she illustrated the Camp's catalog. She maintained a studio in Thetford for seventeen years.

The Thetford phase of Sipprell's career was probably her most productive. During those years she participated in nearly a hundred exhibitions and illustrated many magazine articles.

In 1954, Sipprell moved her studio to Manchester, Vermont and lived with Phyllis Fenner, a writer, librarian, and anthologist of children's books. It was here that Sipprell died at the age of 89 in 1975. Her ashes are buried in Manchester.

In 1974 Sipprell received the Vermont Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. Recent solo exhibits of her work were at the Albright-Knox gallery in Buffalo, New York, the Vermont Historical Society in 1988, the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas in 1990, and at the Thetford Historical Society in 1993. Two books about her work have appeared: her own "Moment of Light" (1966) and Mary K. McCabe's "Clara Sipprell, Pictorial Photographer" (1990).

Organizations or Movements

  • Pictorialist Movement
  • Pictorial Photographers of America
  • The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain
  • The Arts Club of Washington

Occupations

  • Pictorial photographer

Additional Information (Bibliography)

  • Thetford 2006 Summer Newsletter featuring Clara Sipprell Link

Additional Images

"Old Bottle With Woodbine" by Clara Sipprell
"The White Birch" by Clara Sipprell