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Bonnie Lautenberg: Artist & Photographer, Wife of Senator Frank Lautenberg

Image commercially licensed from Unsplash

By Bennet Marcus

Bonnie Lautenberg is an author and renowned photographer, whose work is in private collections as well as those of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, the New York Historical Society, Newark Museum, and the Library of Congress.

If the name sounds familiar, her late husband was Frank Lautenberg, who served five terms as a New Jersey senator from 1982 through 2013. Living in the center of the political whirl, in 1993 Bonnie Lautenberg found herself at the White House, where President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were signing the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accord.

She began taking photographs. “I always had my camera in Washington,” said Lautenberg. As the three leaders were walking out of the White House, she had a flash of recognition that she was capturing a momentous piece of history with her camera. The adrenaline rush was heady; she was, from then on, hooked on photography.

Innate Talent

It wasn’t simply her proximity to the halls of power; it turned out that she had talent. The technicians at the photo lab – they still used film back then – told her that her pictures were as good as or better than those of their professional photographer clients’ who had shot the same event. “That really made me think I had something,” she said.

100 U.S. Senators on How They Changed Our Lives

Another politically related project Lautenberg created was called “How They Changed Our Lives: Senators as Working People,” in which she photographed all 100 members of the 109th Congress (2005-2007). Her husband had proposed much legislation over the years, including the law that banned smoking on airplanes, so Lautenberg became curious about what the other senators had done. “They all allowed me to photograph them, and they gave me the text of what they accomplished.” The project was exhibited at the Mana Contemporary art center in Jersey City, and is now online at the Library of Congress in perpetuity.


Eli Broad Collection

Another career highlight came in September 2008, when Lautenberg photographed then-candidate Barack Obama speaking to an audience at a private home in New Jersey. One of those pictures was in a group show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in Manhattan and is in many private collections, including that of Eli Broad, the prolific art collector and founder of The Broad, a Los Angeles art museum. Mr. Broad displayed the picture along with the text “Change Has Come to America,” referencing Obama’s catchphrase. At an inauguration party he hosted, he had Lautenberg make 350 smaller versions as favors to attendees. “I was very honored that Eli Broad thought enough of me to do that and thought enough of the piece to give it out to everybody at his party as a gift,” Lautenberg said.

Pop Rocks – Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus & Justin Bieber  

Lautenberg does not limit her practice to politics. One body of her work features entertainment icons in performance, including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and others.

It began in 2010 when her husband suggested they go to see Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall for their anniversary. Hearing that Gaga allowed concert audiences to take photos – this was when Instagram was in its infancy, but Gaga was prescient about the rise of social media – Lautenberg snagged front row seats at center stage and snapped away. An East Hampton gallery showed them, and the Gaga pieces have since been in many different exhibits related to music, and spurred Lautenberg to expand it into a series called “Pop Rocks.”

“Artistica! Where Hollywood Meets Art History”

In 2018, she began a new series, “Artistica! Where Hollywood Meets Art History,” pairing a film still and a painting done in the same year. It’s about how one art form may have influenced another. That was shown at the Boca Raton Museum in the ’22-’23 season. One of her works, a photograph of Paul Newman from “Hud” juxtaposed next to Andy Warhol’s Elvis Presley in jeans, holding a gun and wearing a holster, was sold off the wall at Holiday House’s Hamptons showcase over the summer. Lautenberg also showed the series at Carlton Fine Arts on Madison Avenue.

Statue of Liberty: Roe, Guns

More recently, photos of a Statue of Liberty replica Lautenberg had taken became the basis for work related to the pandemic, as well as other issues like the repeal of Roe V. Wade and gun violence.

When the pandemic hit, she put an American flag facemask on Lady Liberty with backgrounds in red, white and blue. An edition of ten pieces printed on aluminum that she donated to the Biden campaign sold out the first day. The David Benrimon Gallery put them in a group show called “Rethinking America,” with the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Robert Longo and Deb Kass. “It was quite thrilling to be in a show of all these great artists!” Lautenberg exclaimed.

“Tears of Roe,” in which Lady Liberty is crying amidst a pink background, was sparked by the Supreme Court decision.

A recent retrospective at the Jewish Museum of Florida included works from the Artistica!, Pop Rocks, and Lady Liberty series’. “We called the show ‘Lady Liberty.’ It was all about women.”

Upcoming Book: Frankly Speaking

Lautenberg’s book, “Frankly Speaking: The Extraordinary Life of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg,” is out in May 2024, with foreword by Hillary Clinton and afterword by Joe Biden. “It’s about Frank, and my life with Frank.” 


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