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© David S. Shields
Babes: The Rise of the Child Beauties Jan 17, '11 8:34 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #523
Photographers: Bolles, Chickering, Falk, Morrison, Sarony, Schloss, Tabor Prang Art
Early in the 1880s, theatrical photographers created a new genre of likeness--the child beauty portrait. Glamorized pre-adolescent girl images in cabinet card format began to fill to news stands competing with the ingenues for the public's dollar. It would prove a powerful and relatively long-lived genre, although the pretty girl picture shrank to the postcard format at the turn of the century. Here I would like to think about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Child Beauties.
In 1896 theatrical critic James Metcalfe wrote "The Stage and the Beauty Problem" for Cosmopolitan Magazine alerting the theatrical public to a historical change in dramaturgy. Since the rise of the 'professional beauty' in 1877 with the international celebrity of Lily Lantry, actresses who were plain of face and indistinct of figure found themselves marginalized on stage. Histrionic talent no longer sufficed to command an audience. The growing popularity of the extravaganza as a theatrical genre, and the increasing incorporation of ballet dancers in entertainments, had given rise to a species of performer who was little more than eye candy for male audience members.
Photography fueled the celebrity of these "buffo" artists, creating careers for modestly talented chorines such as Vinie Clancy and Maude Branscombe by photographically highlighting their good looks and creating a demand to see the subjects in the flesh. Critics Joseph P. Reed and William Walsh chronicled the efforts of stage managers to render emphatic on stage the distinctiveness of their leading ladies' appearances by elaborate costumes, extravagant coiffures, and schooled gestures. Photographers Napoleon Sarony (in New York) and W. J. Downey (in London) amplified the efforts of the managers by making the great stage beauties--Mary Anderson, Mrs. Brown Potter, Lillian Russell, Lantry--inhabit visual environments as ornate and evocative as the sitters. Photographer Jose Maria Mora of New York specialized in creating the next great buffo beauty, picking out dancers and choral singers with piquant faces and pleasing shapes and decking them in exotic costumes and posing them before painted paradises.
When Benjamin J. Falk decided to become a professional theatrical photographer in the mid-1870s, he found Sarony and Mora monopolizing the professional beauty and buffo girl trades respectively. He would make an effort to compete in both areas, but he wished to carve a distinctive segment of the business for himself. He made three: the theatrical production still, the sister act portrait, and the child beauty image. The last genre was his most ingenious and most successful innovation.
Child portraiture had been a fixture of the photographic trade since the daguerreotype era. Parental affection, the exigencies of child fidgetiness, and long exposure times greatly limited what could be done. The living child had to appear familiar, happy or humorously crying, playing, praying, reading, or dreaming. Professional photographers realized there was a public for idealized portraits of childhood--genre scenes: the death of the loved pet, the first kiss, the regretted misdemeanor, the letter to Santa Claus, the evening prayer, the raid on the cookie jar, the imitation of adult behavior. These expected scenes had contained nothing novel, and charmed the viewer with an assurance that the usual things were happening. Falk didn't want to follow this path. He realized that the emergence of beauty as a regnant aesthetic, as a superintending concern in female self-fashioning, made mothers wish to vest their female children with the power they themselves deployed or wished to deploy. Falk approached the stage mothers who were attempting to place children on the stage and did what Mora did with the Buffo chorines. He dressed the little girls in finery, placed them in luxurious visual settings, evaded generic expectations by not having the sitters do anything, and presented them as incarnations of beauty. The surroundings made clear these were creatures of privilege, upper class girls with the fashion industry at their disposal.
Falk's success in creating a market for these images caught his photographic rivals off guard. Only his ex-apprentice Jacob Schloss captured the salient features of the form, making his own beauty girl images. Elmer Chickering in Boston could only supply child genre scenes with cute sisters. William Morrison, grasped the message that child portraits could no longer be sentimental genre pictures, but his response was bizarrely transgressive, showing girls smoking pipes or gripping beer steins. Sarony characteristically exoticized the child beauty portrait, featuring Japanese sisters in a fashionable orientalist fantasy.
Falk was confident he could defend his portraits aesthetically on the basis of painterly precedents--Gainsborough's portraits particularly. The success of the genre, however, disconcerted him in time. The multitude of postcard imitations of his poses and ideas made him abandon the form in 1900. He watched the infantilization of Broadway in the 1900-1910 period, the focus on imitations of Childhood (Little Nemo, Babes in Toyland, etc.) with decidedly mixed feelings, wondering if he had contributed to the fixation with children in the theatrical world. David S. Shields
Addendum: Babes with Beer (Morrison)_david