Introduction | Gallery | Acknowledgements | Bibliography
By Gerard de Vries, Editor of Photographs Pages
As we might expect, the number of photographs at the various stages of Nabokov’s life correspond with his fame.
Because Nabokov was born to an extremely wealthy family, there were no doubt many photos taken of him before 1917, often, presumably preserved in albums. Unfortunately, the Nabokov family fled from Bolshevik Russia so hurriedly that many of their possessions remained in St. Petersburg. Nonetheless about twenty photographs from Nabokov’s youth survive, showing him alone or with members of his family, primarily his parents and siblings. The number of pictures dating from before the Russian Revolution and related to members of Nabokov’s family and their estates is of course larger.
There are a few photos of Nabokov taken in Cambridge, some formal ones of him as a student, and also several showing him punting and rowing on the River Cam which runs through the university, and just behind his college, Trinity.
After graduating, Nabokov lived for about fifteen years in Berlin. His family had by then shrunk and dispersed: after his father was killed in 1922, his mother left for Prague, taking his siblings with her. He married Véra in 1925 and in 1934 Dmitri was born. From this period about fifteen photographs of Nabokov are known, as well as ten or so showing him with his wife, his son, or with both. There are also a number of pictures showing Nabokov in the company of others.
From the years the Nabokovs lived in America before Lolita was published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1958, about thirty photographs have been published, about ten of these presenting him alone, and others with Véra and/or Dmitri, as well as some pictures showing him with Wellesley and Cornell students.
As Lolita exploded, so did the number of pictures of its author. Numerous professional photographers, some them almost as famous as their subject, portrayed Nabokov. Below is a list of these professionals.
- Louise Boyle
- Karl Bulla
- Clayton Smith
- Maclean Dameron
- Gertrude Fehr
- Max Fleissel
- Gisèle Freund
- Henry Grossman
- Philippe Halsman
- Kurt Hoffmann
- Constantin Joffé
- R.T. Kahn
- Yousuf Karsh
- Julie Krementz
- Mac Laurin
- Lord Snowdon
- Topazia Markevitch
- Walter Mori
- Carl Mydans
- Federico Patellani
- Guiseppe Pino
- Marc Riboud
- Colin Sherborne
- Horst Tappe
- Jean Waldis
About fifty of such portraits have been reproduced in print in the books on Nabokov mentioned below. Apart from the solo photos, approximately twenty show VN with Véra and/or Dmitri in this same period. The number of professional photos published in magazines and the number of photos in photographers' portfolios are, of course, in excess of these figures.
If one adds up these figures, it appears that at least a hundred and fifty different photographs of Nabokov can be found in books devoted to Nabokov as well as in periodicals, showing the author alone or in the company of the closest members of his family. These books are briefly discussed below (see our bibliography for details).
The most comprehensive volume is the pictorial biography edited by Ellendea Proffer. Her book contains more than 150 pictures, of which a hundred present Nabokov. The majority of these photos belong to the period before Nabokov became world-famous. Almost all the best-known photos related to Nabokov’s Russian past can be found here.
Exclusively devoted to Vyra and its inhabitants is the equally fine album by Alexander Semochkin. It contains a charming collection of remembrances and descriptions of this estate (and of the neighbouring Batovo, his maternal grandparents’ estate, as well), its pastoral splendors and holidaying inhabitants. It has more than a hundred fine photos, including those of the young Nabokov.
A third album, by Horst Tappe, pertains to Nabokov’s life in Montreux and his hiking in the mountainous region immediately north of this lake resort. It has 24 pictures, many of them well known to Nabokovians, as they are frequently selected to adorn the covers of books by or on Nabokov.
Another category of books that provide a wealth of pictorial illuminations is the illustrated lives. Jane Grayson wrote such a life for the Penguin series “Illustrated Lives,” as did Barbara Wyllie for the series “Critical Lives.” The German “Bildmonographien” series published by Rororo has a volume devoted to Nabokov (the text is the translation of Donald E. Morton’s 1974 monograph). Diana Rippl’s Vladimir Nabokov. Sein Leben in Bild und Text has more than 180 illustrations, most of them photographs, but also reproductions of letters and book covers. Jean Blot’s biography in the series Écrivains de toujours is lavishly illustrated. In the Netherlands an illustrated life is written by Guus Luijters.
Next there are a number of biographies containing photographs. First of all there is Nabokov’s autobiography, which has sixteen pictures, a photo of the St. Petersburg Nabokov house, another of the portrait Léon Bakst made of his mother, as well as photos of two specimens of a small butterfly Nabokov caught in the Alpes Maritimes and preserved in the US.
The predominant presence of Russia in these pictures nicely reflects his memoirs: although Nabokov writes in his foreword that his recollections cover “thirty-seven years, from August 1903 to May 1940,” it is his Russian past alone that occupies twelve of his fifteen chapters, and twelve of the sixteen photos. (Speak, Memory’s Chapter Sixteen was published only posthumously.)
The two volumes of Brian Boyd’s biography contain 56 (VNRY) and 58 (VNAY) illustrations. Andrew Field’s biography has 20 photos of which not a few reappear in his second version, which has 33 illustrations. Andrea Pitzer’s biography has 42 illustrations, half of which pertain to Nabokov and his family. Stacy Schiff’s biography of Véra presents 46 photos, most of them, as might be expected, portraying its main persona. Gavriel Shapiro’s book on Nabokov and his father has some photographs of Nabokov’s father not to be found in the other books mentioned here.
Two of the three published collections of Nabokov’s letters, Selected Letters and Letters to Véra, have about twenty photographs each. Some photos can also be found in the collection of articles edited by Peter Quennell and Alfred Appel & Charles Newman. Copiously illustrated are the Nabokov issues of Saturday Review (January 1973) and Magazine littéraire (September 1986 and September 1999). Some issues of The Nabokovian (no. 7, 11, 13, 15, 16, 19, 20, 22, 25, 26, 45, 49 and 68) also include photographs. Dieter Zimmer’s first book on Nabokov’s butterflies is also illustrated with photos of Nabokov, as are Nabokov’s Butterflies (ed. Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, 1999), and Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson, eds., Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Scientific Art (2016) and Robert Roper’s book on Nabokov in America.
Because all the photographs tend do be drawn from the fund of about 150 photos, Nabokov’s readers often come across the same illustrations. On this site, we have a gallery of almost 40 photographs and drawings grouped by topic.