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© David S. Shields

The Artist's Hand and the Broadway Photograph    Jul 20, '09 7:12 PM
by David for group Historical Ziegfeld Group #131

From 1913 to 1929 motion picture still photography underwent a steady process of industrialization in the studios of Fort Lee, New York, and Hollywood. The lighting, decor, exposure, and development were performed by different specialists. The artistry of a photo owed as much to a set designer or arc light technicians as the master of the lens. Photographers were even segregated into still specialists and portrait gallery cameramen. Once the negatives left the hand of still or portrait photographer, they became the preserve of retouchers and developers.

The Publicity Office (usually in New York City) decided which images would be released for 'exploitation.' Because placement in newspapers, in which duotone reproduction processes were crudest, was the highest wish of P.R. departments, the most effective stills did not have subtle toning effects, and favored lighter backgrounds and few, rather than more, subjects. The ideal Hollywood print would be heavily retouched and rather straight in its set up. In the face of the motion picture's striving for mass response through these engineered images, the Broadway performing arts photographers stressed the hand of the artist, deviating from straight reproduction, by scraping away parts of the background emulsion, painting negatives, engraving photographic images, and seeking painterly or graphic effects.

Frank Bangs published the first of the new Broadway school photographs in 1912 in Theatre magazine. Kansas City was the first hotbed of the mixed graphic/photographic image with Homer Peyton of Strauss-Peyton and Orval Hixon of Hixon-Connelly, vying to be the more extravagant manipulation of the backgrounds of their sitters. 1913 saw an explosion of painted negative backgrounds. They departed from the artistry of pictorial photography, which used soft focus (the Struss lens) and diffused natural lighting to achieve their neverland atmospheres. Peyton or Hixon were not shy about showing the gesture of the artist's hand in the paint. Alfred Cheney Johnston was more decorous and illusionist in his artistic interventions. George M. Kesslere, who like Johnston, had been trained as a painter, used a range of devices to dramatize the artifice of his images--brush, pencil, and engraver's burin.

The most brilliant of the 1920s New York graphic photographers was M. I. Boris, formerly of Sofia Bulgaria and Vienna. Trained in the graphic aesthetics of Klinger and the symbolist rhetoric of Van Stuck, he reworked photographs until they seemed engravings. His skill influenced John DeMirjian and Hal Phyfe, both of whom had graphic moments in their work. Herbert Mitchell, a self-trained sketch artist, animator, and painter, marked the end of the painterly photo.

In the best works of this tradition of image-making, the virtuosity of the artist's hand colludes with the endearing beauties of professional beauties to create compelling images--equal to, ore more arresting than Hollywood publicity images. David S. Shields

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