Clara Estelle Sipprell

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Clara Estelle Sipprell (Canadian-American, 1885-1975) internationally renowned photographer and author, primarily known for her photo-pictorialist style landscapes and portraits of well known actors, artists, scientists, and writers. She was born on Halloween in 1885 and was the sixth child and only daughter of Francis Sipprell (who died before she was born), and Fanny (née Crabbe), in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada. When her brothers were old enough to work, three had moved to Buffalo, NY and sent back money to their mother and encouraged her to join them when she was able. Around 1895, Sipprell and her mother moved to Buffalo, NY to join the family. Clara’s brother Francis "Frank" J. Sipprell (Canadian-American, 1878-1958) had worked as a photographer’s assistant when he first moved to Buffalo and with money borrowed from one of his older brothers, he opened Sipprell Photography Studio in 1902, located at 487 Delaware Avenue, and later at 795 Elmwood Avenue. Clara began her career working as an assistant for her brother Frank in his studio, and at the age of sixteen left school to become his full-time assistant. She partnered with him in 1905 and worked with him for over ten years, learning all the technical aspects of photography from Frank. Clara credited Frank for her aesthetic and technical training, stating “He taught me all I seem to know. He taught me by letting me alone with my mistakes, and for that reason I never became conscious of the limitation of photography.” [1]

In her early years, Clara took landscape photos around the Buffalo area, and while learning the technical side of photography and art, she would practice and experiment with various forms of photographic media. Some of the experiments included using the bromoil and carbon processes, gum bichromate, platinum prints, color autochromes, gelatin silver prints, and prints on tissue. Clara exhibited her first photos with the Buffalo Camera Club in 1910, which was closed to women at the time, but because her brother was a member, she was allowed her to participate. She won second prize for one of her portraits. Though she couldn’t become a member, she was able to continue exhibiting in annual shows. In 1913, she won six prizes at the show, surpassing any of the Club’s rostered members. The art and photography critic Sydney Allen (later known as Carl Sadakichi Hartmann), took notice of Clara’s pieces at the show and wrote two favorable reviews of her work. Her successes prompted an invitation by Allen to speak at various photography clubs in New York City. She moved to there in 1915 with her long-time family friend and teacher Jessica Beers. Sipprell opened up her own photography portrait studio in Greenwich Village and also maintained a studio in Thetford, VT. Circa 1919 she met Irina Khrabroff, a young Yugoslavian woman who became her lifelong friend, and later her dealer and business manager.

Over the course of her career Clara traveled extensively with Irina and continued to exhibit regularly and have her work published. She primarily used a large 8 x 10” camera with a soft-focus lens, only taking her shots in natural light and never retouching any images. "I don't give a hoot about processes. My pictures are created outside of the dark room and I work very simply with old equipment and a soft-focus lens. And I take everything 'straight print' from the negative"[2] The traditional photo-pictorialist, she was interested in simple beauty and soft-focus imagery, and maintained that aesthetic vision whether she was doing portraits, landscapes or still-lifes. Sipprell exhibited in at least 127 solo and group shows in and around Buffalo, NY, across the United States, and around the world, including Canada, England, Sweden, Italy, Constantinople, France and Japan. She won several prizes for her photos throughout her career, garnering world wide fame along the way. Some of her more famous portraits include the King of Sweden (Gustaf the V & VI with Crown Princess Louise), Albert Schweitzer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Albert Einstein, Charles E. Burchfield, Grandma Moses, Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost, Charles Edward Ives, Alfred Stieglitz, Maxfield Parrish, Eleanor Roosevelt, Howard Thurman and many others "...They have made me what I am...I am the result of all the great persons I have known. They have left their dust on me."[3]&[4] Major collections of her work are housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX and at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. Her memberships included the Pictorial Photographers of America, NYC, The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (RPS), Bath, England, and the Arts Club of Washington, DC.

In 1937 she moved to Manchester, VT and met the writer, librarian and anthologist of children’s books Phyllis R. Fenner, with whom she traveled and lived out the remainder of her years. In the mid 1960’s, they contracted to build a home with Buffalo architect and artist Harold LeRoy Olmsted (American, 1886-1972) which included a studio and darkroom for Clara. In 1966, Clara authored and published her own book of photographs titled “Moment of Light”. She died on April 15, 1975, at the age of eighty-nine.

(Rewritten in parts by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., East Aurora, NY, meibohmfinearts.com, sources: Too long to list here and are furnished upon request.)
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