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Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography

Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography

by David S. Shields

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The success of movies like The Artist and Hugo recreated the wonder and magic of silent film for modern audiences, many of whom might never have experienced a movie without sound. But while the American silent movie was one of the most significant popular art forms of the modern age, it is also one that is largely lost to us, as more than eighty percent


The success of movies like The Artist and Hugo recreated the wonder and magic of silent film for modern audiences, many of whom might never have experienced a movie without sound. But while the American silent movie was one of the most significant popular art forms of the modern age, it is also one that is largely lost to us, as more than eighty percent of silent films have disappeared, the victims of age, disaster, and neglect. We now know about many of these cinematic masterpieces only from the collections of still portraits and production photographs that were originally created for publicity and reference. Capturing the beauty, horror, and moodiness of silent motion pictures, these images are remarkable pieces of art in their own right. In the first history of still camera work generated by the American silent motion picture industry, David S. Shields chronicles the evolution of silent film aesthetics, glamour, and publicity, and provides unparalleled insight into this influential body of popular imagery.   Exploring the work of over sixty camera artists, Still recovers the stories of the photographers who descended on early Hollywood and the stars and starlets who sat for them between 1908 and 1928. Focusing on the most culturally influential types of photographs—the performer portrait and the scene still—Shields follows photographers such as Albert Witzel and W. F. Seely as they devised the poses that newspapers and magazines would bring to Americans, who mimicked the sultry stares and dangerous glances of silent stars. He uncovers scene shots of unprecedented splendor—visions that would ignite the popular imagination. And he details how still photographs changed the film industry, whose growing preoccupation with artistry in imagery caused directors and stars to hire celebrated stage photographers and transformed cameramen into bankable names.   Reproducing over one hundred and fifty of these gorgeous black-and-white photographs, Still brings to life an entire long-lost visual culture that a century later still has the power to enchant.

Editorial Reviews

David Thomson

Still is not just a labor of love or the fruit of a personal passion. It’s not just an astonishing album of ‘beauty’ and beauty. In the process it amounts to one of the most radical reappreciations of the origins of film we have ever had. For what starts as a collector’s rapture turns into a surprising and creative evocation of what silent movies looked and felt like. This is a piece of history, lavishly illustrated, but it is a serious contribution toward the history of film, too.”
film historian and founder of Bison Archives Marc Wanamaker

 “Still photography played an integral part in all aspects of the silent film industry, from photos of stars and productions to the entire technical advancement of the medium. This study of American silent era stills is extremely important for anyone interested in the histories of cinema and photography.”
Luc Sante

 “Still meticulously and sure-footedly juggles many tasks at once to encompass a number of matters crucial to an understanding of the history of the use of still and portrait photography in conjunction with silent films—including the development of commercial portraiture, the use of photographs by magazines and newspapers, the history of censorship of the arts in America, and more. David S. Shields has done a heroic amount of research, in many cases tracking down lives that seem to have scarcely been chronicled before. A major accomplishment, Still opens entire new worlds in the history of photography.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

 “David S. Shields’ appropriately photo-packed history of the nascent days of movie publicity—the first photographers to capture silent screen stars on set, on the backlot, in candid settings and staged studio portraits—offers far more than just an amazing collection of images. So many films from the early decades of the 20th century have been lost, but here, miraculously, they can be found again. . . . A truly major achievement.” 
Los Angeles Times

 “In his richly illustrated Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, David S. Shields examines the groundbreaking work of the early cinematographers and still photographers who created that phenomenon. Shields is both scholarly and deeply passionate about the pictures (some from his own collection), gathering rare images from the sets of epic costume dramas and the kind of celebrity portraiture that would reach its ultimate expression generations later in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.”
New Yorker

“This book is both an account of the still photography of the silent era and a collection of enthralling images.”

“One opens this book with exquisite care and almost a hush of awe. Exploring the work of over sixty camera artists, Shields has pulled together a beautiful collection of photographic stills and portrait photography from the American silent film era of 1908 and 1928 that chronicles the fascinating intersection between the two art forms of the moving image and commercial photography. . . . Shields’s presentation entrances as he weaves his own spell of their contributions. Not only does one exclaim in reading this amazing work that Hollywood stars had faces then, but that they also had photographic artists who created the icons that linger and enchant.” 

“The detailed profiles of so many photographers are the book’s triumph. . . . Not just a reappraisal of a collection of daring, innovative artisans, Shields’s book makes all too apparent how bland and safe contemporary movie stills and portraits really are.”

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American Silent Motion Picture Photography



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01343-5



Photography and the Birth of Professional Beauty

The "professional beauty"—or "the beauty"—emerged relatively recently as a cultural figure, sometime between 1877 and 1880. She first appeared as twins—as a society woman seeking publicity and as an actress seeking a station in society. Her birth announcement was a piece of albumin-coated cardboard four and a half inches wide by six and a half inches tall called a cabinet card.

When inexpensive photographic prints first became popular in the early 1860s, in the diminutive form of cartes de visites, they could not quite capture beauty. He or she generally reckoned handsome in the flesh was too "often a great sufferer in going through the photographic process." The camera robbed vitality from those upon whom providence had lavished looks. "There are many beauties of colour and expression which cannot be rendered by the agency of the camera. Colour of hair, colour of the complexion generally, of the lips, the cheeks, the eyes, these go for nothing; and as to expression, the most expressive countenances suffer most invariably; a little happy touch of expression is a phenomenon one hardly ever remembers to have seen caught in a photographic portrait." From 1860 to 1880 photographers upon both sides of the Atlantic labored to remedy the problem. They devised technical means of imbuing men and women with allure—tricks of lighting, filtering, and focus. They also sought out faces and figures that somehow conveyed those vital touches of expression when posed before a lens. Enterprising photographers discovered a new species of being, the photogenic beauty. To honor their success magazine pundits bestowed upon them the title "artist."

In 1880, Harper's Bazaar instructed readers "How to Have One's Portrait Taken." Its first recommendation—seek a camera "artist":

It is a great mistake to imagine that photography is a mere mechanical trade. There is as much difference between two photographers as between two engravers. Nor will a fine lens alone produce a good picture. The pose of the sitter, the disposition of lights and shadows, the arrangement of drapery, are of the greatest consequence. A good artist has almost unlimited power in this direction. He can render certain parts thinner by plunging them into half-tone or by burying their outline in the shade, and he can deepen and augment other portions by surrounding them with light: thus if the head is too small for beauty, he can increase its size by throwing the light on the face; and if it is too large, he can diminish it by choosing a tint that would throw one-half the face in shadow.

The camera artist had distinguished himself from the job photographer through a knowledge of pose and a mastery of lighting. The tactical manipulation of light could edit a sitter's face toward a pleasing ideal of configuration. Knowledge of aesthetic ideals of face, figure, pose, and expression distinguished the greatest camera artists. The savants boldly announced the new beauty in their exhibition galleries or in the display cases that adorned the entranceways of studio buildings.

As early as the 1850s, London and New York housed hundreds of photographic exhibition spaces. On the eve of the Civil War a writer for the New York Times observed that there were two hundred galleries "in Broadway, the Bowery, and the several Avenues." At 707 Broadway, Jeremiah Gurney, who had learned the art from Samuel F. B. Morse, the first American practitioner, had erected a "marble palace" for his pictures. Show portraits—most often head shots and half-lengths of public men and their wives—covered the first-floor walls from floor to ceiling. Photographic preparation took place on the two floors above. The portrait studio occupied the top floor to make use of the building's ample skylight. Two galleries maintained by Matthew Brady in Manhattan nearly matched Gurney's in splendor. Visitors could purchase celebrity portraits in several formats or visit the studio for their own sittings. "There is no place in New-York where one can better amuse himself than at either of these Galleries—Brady's is full of pictures of historical characters and pretty women—Gurney's is equally well furnished in both particulars."

These pretty women (Lola Montez and Ada Isaacs Mencken no doubt numbered among them) were the foremothers of the beauties who would burst into public view in the late 1870s and 1880s. The first "professional beauty" emerged in London in 1877 in the person of Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), the handsome Jersey-born wife of a wealthy English yachtsman. Her wit, bearing, and beauty entranced the philandering Prince of Wales, who made her his mistress, the focus of high society, and the fascination of the photographers. Gallery windows filled with "pictures of Mrs Langtry in every conceivable costume and attitude abound.... Mrs. Langtry with a quill thrust through her hat; Mrs. Langtry with a dove in her hand which she is tenderly regarding.... Mrs. Langtry in morning costume and again in evening dress; Mrs. Langtry with a Japanese umbrella over her right shoulder." Though dominating the gallery glass of London, she did not monopolize it. Her rivals in society kept her company. "In one window I counted twenty-nine photographs of different ladies, all of them belonging to society.... Of Mrs Langtry alone there were thirteen different photos." When Langtry's affair with the prince ended, she faced the prospect of pariahhood. Rather than languish as a castoff in the country, the beauty banked on her celebrity. She engaged with theatrical producers, strode the stage, and continued her reign as the city's premier human spectacle. Her beauty, her audacity, and her notoriety overcame her modest talent as a mimetic artistic. Her performances even charmed her former lover, the Prince of Wales, who urged his circle to attend her shows.

Langtry's dual identity—creature of society and a theatrical attraction—set up the tension that would govern the uneasy, but increasingly intimate, relation between the realms of privilege and popular entertainment for the next decades. Society belles began to savor the sensation of commanding the public eye and consented to the display of their images in photographic galleries and sometimes their sale. Young beauties from obscure backgrounds who possessed modest skills at singing, dancing, and acting found an increasingly conspicuous place on the stage because of the new photographically stimulated premium on feminine beauty. The theater became the space in England and America where the beauty could be seen in the flesh. A spectator could enjoy "professional beauties" visually in the theater or in a photograph album upon payment of a modest fee. Their appearances were commodities. Specialists in theatrical photography—W. & D. Downey in London, Napoleon Sarony and Jose Mora in New York City, Chandler & Sheetz Studio in Philadelphia—grew wealthy servicing the public demand for cabinet photos of the beauties. In 1882 a commentator for the Boston Daily Globe reflected on the business:

Within the last three or four years the mania for collecting photographs of actresses celebrated for their grace and beauty, or for their genius, has assumed enormous proportions. The production and sale of such pictures has proved to be a very lucrative business with photographers. The discovery of the fact is due to the Englishman who flooded the shop windows in London with portraits of Mrs. Langtry, Mrs. Cornwallis West, Lady Lonsdale, and other society beauties. The enterprising solar artist realized a fortune from the sale of the photos of those ladies, and it is asserted that the fair dames themselves received considerable additions of pin money by way of commission. Sarony of New York, Scholl and Chandler and Sheetz of Philadelphia were not slow in profiting by the experience of the English photographs. They employed gentlemanly agents to call upon prima donnas and actresses of note to solicit sittings. In many instances, especially with buffo artists, whose celebrity was due more to their beauty of form or feature than to their talents, a sum of money in addition to "as many photographs as the lady desired" was the guerdon demanded by the beautiful prey of the camera and lens. Their pictures sold by the hundreds and thousands.

Desirous young men did not monopolize the market for photographic celebrity. "Young ladies in particular are assiduous customers." Older men had a taste for costume photos of buffo women. When buxom Nellie Larkelle of The Black Crook graced a cabinet card in her Amazon uniform, the photo galleries and newsstands were "besieged by gray-haired and bald-headed gentlemen in quest of copies." Purchasers archived images of the favorite, or of favorites, in specially manufactured albums that had slots for dozens of photographs.

As soon as the rage for collecting beauties erupted, commentators pondered the psychology of those who kept beauty albums. In England the first professional beauties had been married women in society or on the stage. In the United States things differed. Photographers noticed that the flash bachelor segment of the trade fell off upon the "removal of a stage beauty from public view by reason of death, marriage or any other cause." One writer surmised that young men bought pictures of actresses "from a feeling of proprietary interest. They admire a pretty actress, and are at liberty to go and see her, send flowers to her, write letters to her, dream wildly of a possibility marrying her, or, at least, of making her acquaintance. They feel that they have the same right to display her picture that any man has." The photo beauty became a figure of male fantasy whose visual availability gave her an exciting and indeterminate aura of possibility. Even the married actress owned the aura because of the chance that she might give in, Langtry-like, to an affair with a likely man. Displaying an actress's picture in one's bachelor apartment attested to membership in a masculine society defined by common desire. Male sociability formed around shared tastes for particular women or types. The fantasy desideratum was to own the beauty, through marriage or parading her in public on one's arm. The literature on bachelor picture collecting did not mention a private bedroom devotion to the beauty. Yet when stories of women buying actors' photographs appeared in the press, the commentators noted, "they confined their attention to the large $2 and $3 panel pictures that one can worship in one's boudoir." In these tales writers invariably invoked a community of desire. In one exemplary story the women were six stylish, goodhumored, and healthy sixteen-year-olds who ransacked the photographer's boxes for images of English-born actor Kyrle Bellew. "They wanted Bellew in every suit he ever wore, in every play he ever acted in, in as many postures as he could conveniently assume.... They reveled in Bellew lying on a rug before a fire." These young ladies embodied one pole of urban image consumption. They collected intensively, pursuing one subject in all his variations. Both men and women bought images in this manner, creating immense demand for certain celebrities. In 1887 the hot-selling actors included Robert Hilliard, Herbert Kelcey, Maurice Barrymore, and E. H. Sothern. Histrionic talent had a market—Henry Irving's portrait sold, "but not to equal the beauty men." The other pole consisted of the extensive buyers, those who filled their albums with a different player for every page.

When a customer bought a portrait of one of the theater's beautiful people, they got more than an image; they obtained a name. Possession of the name permitted persons to access the person by checking for schedules of performance. When society women permitted their images to be displayed in the gallery cases of photographers, they often constrained the dealer from publishing their names. Nor were copies of images allowed to be sold. Withholding the name prevented the interested bystander or cabinet card collector from contacting the beauty in person. Of course, within the hermetic circle of blue book society, images would be recognized. But since marriageable persons within society had a mutual interest in one another in terms of partnership potential, the pictures worked to increase one's market value. If a beauty created a sensation at the galleries, winning a public, she enhanced her mystique within the charmed circle. Consider the effect of an article such as 1888's "The Beauties of Chicago," published with wood engravings taken from cabinet cards: "A Dozen Pretty Faces from the Photograph Galleries—All are Chicago Girls, but Their Names Must Remain a Secret—Perhaps if You Are in Society you Can Guess Who They Are—Neither Love nor Money Can Procure Pictures from the Suspicious Photographers." The exclusivity of access gave such beauties zest in the eyes of flash bachelors, and a culture of photo gallery denizens grew up, scanning the exhibit cases for rare specimens. In 1895, the sensation one beauty caused among the young men of the nation's capital made the local news columns of the Washington Post: "A new beauty has bloomed upon Washington, a rare type of the unconscious and dudedom is in agony over its failure to solve the mystery of her identity, for her picture, just put upon exhibition at the up-stairs entrance to an F street photographer's discloses nothing but a face unfamiliar to society and the fashionable thoroughfares, but still a face to be remembered. Half the dudes in town fainted the first day, tolling up the stairs after looking at the fascinating contour."

Young women sometimes prohibited sale of the photographs fearing that a copy might fall in the hands of the cigarette men. These swashbuckling marketers ordered thousands of images from the principal galleries. "We only deal with the best artists.... the prettiest women or the most popular singers and actresses—only go to the first-class galleries." The cigarette men enhanced the salability of a pack by including a card of a trophy beauty. A fine lady's image would be subjected to the gaze of the commonality without her permission, and since bold chorines in tights appeared on the packs, the associations were regrettable.

Society women consented to the public exhibition of portraits to secure a mystique that they could import into the closed system of the haute monde. But what use did they make of the portrait prints that they secured for themselves? These were given as gifts to classmates, friends, relations, and beaus. One maintained an album of one's circle, and the presence of others' images evidenced the company one kept—those persons within the bon ton with whom one had personal connection. Beyond this, the photograph provided an opportunity for expression. Since the power of beauty had been demonstrated to the extent that a commoner could captivate a royal prince and galvanize the stage with her glory, could one access its power for one's own purposes? The 1880s marked an era where status within society for women might be determined by looks rather than wealth, bloodline, or virtue. Indeed beauty could trump all other qualities that connoted power in society. Mrs. John W. Rennie, the seventeen-year-old Hispanic Californian wife of an engineer and mining tycoon, became the talk of the town in New York in 1880. A society reporter for the New York Times observed, "It is only fair to set her down as the most beautiful woman in New York ... and when I call her a professional beauty, I simply adopt a phrase used respectfully enough in London to designate Mrs. Langtry, Lady Lonsdale, Mrs. Cornwallis West and several other highly respected women famous for their personal charms, and who do not affect to be unaware of the admiration which they excite. Mrs. Rennie has begun a similar reign in this city. She will be all the rage this winter. At the front of theatre-boxes she has already become a rival of the attraction on the stage. At the opera she is the focus of all glasses. Society is talking of her." The reporter observed that several photographers had made overtures to her to shoot pictures for sale to the public; that she refused, but would consent for some to be used as wares for a charity fair.

Excerpted from STILL by DAVID S. SHIELDS. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David S. Shields is the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. His books include Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America and Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690–1750, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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