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Hamptons Life

Oct 6, 2008 4:30 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

One pair of filmmakers, one documentary about a pair of photographers

Oct 6, 2008 4:30 PM

The title of the documentary “Twin Lenses” has nothing to do with the two people from very different backgrounds who made the movie.

The 25-minute film—which will be screened during the Hamptons International Film Festival next week—is about the iconic female photographers who helped pioneer the advancement of women in the world of fashion and magazine photography.

The producer and director of “Twin Lenses” is Nina Rosenblum and the writer is Dennis Watlington. The collaboration on this and previous projects has brought together two people who have had very different life and career experiences.

First, more about the documentary: It tells the remarkable story of the twins Kathryn Abbe and Frances McLaughlin-Gill, pioneer fashion and editorial photographers whose images graced the pages of magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and are recognized as masterpieces of their genre.

The twins embraced a wide range of subjects: celebrities, intimate family moments, high fashion, lifestyle, and beauty. In 1943, Frances joined Vogue Studio, photographing exclusively for the magazine and other Conde Nast publications for two decades. Kathryn, a freelance photographer, had clients including McCalls, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, and Paris Match.

Both twins married into photographic families. Kathryn’s husband, James Abbe Jr., the son of James Abbe Sr., a famed Hollywood photographer, was a noted photographer, as was Leslie Gill, the husband of Frances. The twins set a standard for balancing their pioneering work and devoting time to family, raising children. Now 88, Kathryn lives in Montauk and her sister lives in New York City.

“Twin Lenses” tells of their accomplishments in photography in their own words and in the words of their families. The film pays tribute to the richness and allure of their life’s work, their bond, and their commitment to each other and to excellence in photography.

As for the people behind the lens, Ms. Rosenblum worked for more than a dozen years for PBS, then became an independent filmmaker by establishing Daedelus Productions, her own company. She is a two-time International Documentary Association award-winning producer, director, and writer of documentaries.

Her previous films include the Oscar-nominated PBS documentary “Liberators: Fighting On Two Fronts in World War II,” narrated by Denzel Washington and Louis Gossett Jr. and nominated for an Academy Award; the Emmy Award-winning TBS show “The Untold West: The Black West,” narrated by Danny Glover; PBS/POV feature documentary “Through the Wire,” narrated by Susan Sarandon; and “The Skin I’m In,” about Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone that was broadcast on Showtime.

Mr. Watlington followed a different path to teaming up with Ms. Rosenblum. An Emmy Award winner for “The Untold West: The Black West,” he has written numerous television movies, features, soaps, sitcoms, and articles for Vanity Fair, New York Times, and other publications. His book, “Chasing America: Notes of a Rock ’N Soul Integrationist,” was published in 2006 by St. Martin’s Press and this month is being published in France. He is an African-American from the South who started out in the writing business as a sports reporter and then moved on to writing for TV.

“Somehow the combination really works—she is an excellent documentarian, and I’m a former writer of soap operas,” Mr. Watlington said, laughing, referring to his stints writing scripts for “One Life To Live” and “General Hospital.” He was also a field producer on TV documentaries, such as “The Mike Tyson Story” for NBC and “The Lenny Dykstra Story” for HBO.

Ms. Rosenblum has long had a fascination with the subjects of “Twin Lenses” and with photography itself. Her mother wrote “A History of Women Photographers,” which included Kathryn and Frances and was published by the Abbeville Press. Her father was a well-known photographer and highly decorated World War II cameraman who landed at Normandy on D-Day and also documented the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. One of Rosenblum’s previous films is about her father, “Walter Rosenblum: In Search of Pitt Street,” which was also written by Mr. Watlington.

“Documentaries are in my heart,” Ms. Rosenblum said. “My whole world was documentaries. I never really thought about fiction or features because the real world was more incredible. To take somebody’s life like the twins’ is like a miner looking for that vein of gold. You go through hours and days and weeks of material, and when you find those special moments it’s ‘Eureka!’ And it’s real, you didn’t make it up.”

Her initial research into the twins made her more intrigued because they were truly pioneers in the male-dominated world of fashion photography in the mid-20th century. Born in 1919 in New York City, they grew up in Wallingford, Connecticut, and they received a BFA in art and design from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1941. They studied photography with Walter Civardi there and painting with Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the New School for Social Research.

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