Reconstructing the History of American Theatrical Photography
By David S. Shields
My project at the Harry Ransom Center concerned researching the history of theatrical photography in North America from the appearance of the first theatrical photographer—Napoleon Sarony in 1867—to the coming of the Great Depression. During my month in residence, I examined several collections in their entirety—the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, the minstrel show collection—and explored the immense riches of the biographical files for performers and theatrical managers. My hope was to encounter images reflecting dimensions of stage performance that rarely have been registered graphically, to examine prints by stage photographers I had not yet encountered, and to determine detailed life histories of creators of stage images. The wealth of the Ransom's Center's performing arts collections allowed to me accomplish all of these goals.
The Ransom Center must have the largest collection of large-panel painted photographic portraits in the world. These 7-by-13-inch still panels vary in artistry from primary color vulgarity to beautifully subtle watercolored mastery. These portraits are of particular interest because they supply the best documentation of the coloration of costumes during the era of 1870–1910, when photography killed the color lithograph portrait. Another surprise was the vastness of the number of pictures from the netherwold of stage entertainment—the vaudeville circuits, burlesque houses, and medicine shows. Albert Davis, the New York collector whose image trove serves as the nucleus of the earliest holdings in the performing arts image collection, must have had a place in his heart for low-brow entertainment because there are countless publicity photographs from the studios that tapped into the trouper clientele: Strand Studio, Progress Studio, Unity Studio, and Nasib. No other public archive has this kind of material.
While examining vaudeville images created by Strand Studio, I encountered the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway's sole significant African-American photographer of the early twentieth century. A half day of intensive research enabled me to reconstruct an outline of his career. A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, he had a studio there in the early 1910s, moved to New York in 1916 to work in the studio of Aime Dupont, and then became a stage photographer for Strand Studio. In 1920 the mediocrity of Strand's aesthetics became repugnant to him, so he set off into independent business. He became the favorite photographer of the black revues on Broadway and of musicians and black vaudevillians. Several images document the stages of this career, and I suspect more may reside in the musicians collection.
The Ransom Center's collections also contain a sampling of all of the female photographers who worked in the theatrical portrait trade from 1900 to 1925: the Selby Sisters, Etta Greer Dupont, Jessie Tarbox Beals, Alice Boughton, Charlotte Fairchild, Mary Dale Clarke, and Florence Vandamm. I was able to ascertain that two other studios of the period were run by women: Floyd (run by Carolina F. C. Bassett, a.k.a. C. Floyd Coleman) and McClure (presided over by the Scottish-born, Parisian-trained painter Alice McClure). Superb portraits by both of these newly identified female artists appear in the collections.
Some of my findings from this project will appear in the photographers' biography pages of my website Broadway Photographs (Broadway.cas.sc.edu). Other material will appear in my next photographic history, a theatrical follow-up of my recently released Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (University of Chicago, 2013).
David S. Shields is the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. His research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.