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Library exhibition of photographs focuses on 'lost generation'

By Ruth Stevens

mid-1930s photograph

This mid-1930s photograph of Sylvia Beach (left) and Adrienne Monnier in Shakespeare & Company shows the walls filled with portraits of the ''lost generation,'' some of which are included in the Firestone Library exhibition.

Princeton NJ -- A new exhibition that provides a snapshot of American literati life in Paris between the two world wars will be on view in Firestone Library from Nov. 8 through April 17.

''Portraits of the Lost Generation'' focuses chiefly on photographs by Man Ray (1890-1976), the American expatriate artist who moved to Paris in 1921. Also included are portraits of notable American writers and artists by Berenice Abbott, Gisèle Freund, Alfred Harcourt, M. Thérèse Bonney and other photographers active in Paris during the 1920s and '30s.

These photographers and their subjects were drawn to Paris as an avant-garde cultural mecca, open to new ideas and free from censorship. The term ''lost generation'' was coined by poet Gertrude Stein to refer to the group of expatriates, which included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stein herself.

The photographs on exhibition in Firestone Library once lined the walls of Shakespeare & Company, the legendary English-language bookshop founded in Paris by Sylvia Beach (1887-1962). Beach was the daughter of Sylvester Beach, an 1876 Princeton graduate and the minister of Princeton's First Presbyterian Church from 1906 to 1923.

Sylvia Beach moved to Paris and in 1919 established her bookshop, which also functioned as a subscription-based lending library, small press and meeting place for expatriate writers, artists and musicians. Beach is best known for publishing the first edition of James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' in 1922. But Shakespeare & Company also played an important role as an intercultural space where American expatriates could read, borrow or purchase books; meet and share ideas; and enjoy the company of contemporary French, English and Irish authors, artists and other international visitors.

Contributing to Beach's success was her friend and companion Adrienne Monnier, a Paris bookseller and publisher. The two knew nearly every important writer and artist in Paris until World War II. In addition to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein, their circle of literary friends included T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle and many other authors and artists who frequented Shakespeare & Company.

''Beach filled every square inch of wall space in Shakespeare & Company with framed photographs of contemporary authors belonging to 'the crowd,''' said exhibition organizer Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Most of the materials in the exhibition are from Beach's extensive archive of photographs, personal papers, business records and literary editions. The Princeton University library acquired these materials in 1964 through the efforts of Howard C. Rice, then head of rare books and special collections, and with a donation from Graham D. Mattison, a member of the class of 1926, and the assistance of her sister, Holly Beach.

The 41 black-and-white portraits by Man Ray and other photographers provide an ''enduring visual memoir of the 'lost generation' in Paris,'' according to Skemer. ''The exhibition gives you a feeling of being there -- a sense of place and time 80 years ago.''

Man Ray, who was born Emmanuel Rudnitsky in Philadelphia, is known primarily for his Surrealist work. He originally bought a camera to document his paintings, but then became interested in professional portrait photography. Some of his first sitters were his friends in Paris.

Photographs by Man Ray that are part of the exhibition include two self-portraits as well as shots of Hemingway, Eliot, Pound, Barnes, Boyle and Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Also exhibited are Man Ray photographs of Trenton, N.J.-born composer George Antheil, poet William Carlos Williams and novelist Sinclair Lewis.

Although less well known than his avant-garde photography and Rayographs, Man Ray's portraits in the ''straight photography'' tradition are respected for their directness, according to Skemer. When working in this genre, Man Ray avoided manipulation of the photographic prints. He once observed, ''I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.''

Subjects of the other photographers include New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder and Sylvia Beach herself. The portraits are contextualized by the memorabilia from the bookshop and by manuscripts, memoirs and early editions of the writers and artists portrayed.

On display along with the photographs are items such as the portrait of William Shakespeare that hung in front of the Paris bookshop; Fitzgerald's manuscript of ''Babylon Revisited''; Hemingway's 1961 letter -- written just days before he committed suicide -- about his unpublished ''Paris Book'' (''A Moveable Feast''); and Beach's autographed manuscript of an early draft of her memoir, ''Shakespeare & Company.''

The free exhibition will be on view in Firestone Library's Main Gallery from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It was co-curated by Skemer and John Logan, literature bibliographer in the library, with the assistance of graduate student in English Keri Walsh.