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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 09, 1996|Jenny Cornuelle

LIMELIGHT: by Terence Pepper (National Portrait Gallery: $19.95; 35 pp.). "Limelight" is the companion volume to the British National Portrait Gallery's 1996 retrospective of James Abbe's photographs. Abbe was many silent film stars' chosen portraitist (Lillian Gish's favorite), though he considered himself a photojournalist, chasing down stories in the Spanish Civil War, Stalin's Russia and Nazi Germany. His career, ending as it did before World War II, depicts a world still largely uncomplicated by color. Abbe draws out every ounce of drama from his subjects. His pictures of Valentino, the Gish sisters, Chaplin, Swanson and the Barrymore brothers are of breathtaking beings who flourished in a soundless world. Included here are several backstage shots; of Anna Pavlova surrounded by a litter of discarded toe shoes or Cecil B. DeMille with a huge stuffed shark behind his chair. Like Vermeer paintings, the figures seem the source, not the subject of light. The people Abbe photographed were happy to live in black and white. From a pouting Stalin to anonymous chorus girls, they knew that everything looks best in half shadow.

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