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© David S. Shields
Albert W. Witzel Profile Nov 1, '09 11:44 AM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #157
I've digested the following material from my forthcoming study of Photography & Silent Cinema, The Magic Mirror. There is no published account of Witzel's career, so this is the first biography available. I'm restricting it to members of the Group. Copyright: David S. Shields.
Born in Deadwood, South Dakota of German parents, Albert Walter Witzel (1879-1929), moved to California in 1886 and was employed as an assistant in George Stekel’s photography studio at 14, sometime late in 1894. Since Steckel’s career had begun learning the craft as a teen lab assistant, he was well disposed toward an eager, ambitious boy. Witzel could have had no finer instructor. He had to master printing on all varieties of paper, in platinum, in carbon, in silver bromide. At twenty-one, Witzel opened his own studio in Los Angeles in 1902. Because of his connection with Steckel, Witzel began business as a known entity among the elite families who bankrolled the high end portrait market. His problem: how to secure some distinction in the field without seeming a second-hand Steckel. In 1905 he hit upon the answer.
Critics might hail Steckel as the Sarony of the West Coast, but in one conspicuous way he was not; Sarony’s fame as a portraitist lay in his extravagant exploration of theatrical performers as subjects. Witzel would take up that one clientele that had little interested Steckel—show people. At a time when performers were all too conscious of their unexalted status in the eyes of Society, any visual tincture of class that might be attached to one’s image was welcomed. They wanted Gainsborough country as their surroundings too. Witzel obliged and became the favorite southern California photographer on the coastal theater circuit.
When the new movie studios began looking for portrait photographers to supply publicity photos for their motion picture stars, the theater folk steered them to Albert Witzel’s studio. On August 21, 1913, he supplied the first movie star portrait to be published as a copy image in the Los Angeles Times, Miss Viola Barry in “The Sea Wolf” by Balboa Pictures. This was followed on the 27th by Elsie Albert “As the Princess in ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,’ A Venus feature film being produced by M. C. Matthews of the Powers Company. In September Witzel supplied a portrait of author and actress Lois Weber, star of the Phillips Smalley Company. All were illustrations for columns of Bonnie Glessner, the first newspaper movie columnist covering Hollywood. Witzel was the only credited photographer whose images appeared during this early newspaper experiment in motion picture coverage.
Witzel spent much of the last quarter of 1913 and early 1914 shooting publicity portraits for the multiplying motion picture companies in the region. Balboa Films in Long Beach sent its performers repeatedly to his studio, and had Witzel shoot female lead Jackie Saunders in a variety of looks and guises. The Kalem Company, having recently moved its West Coast base of operations from Santa Monica to East Hollywood, sent Marin Sais, a Latin beauty from one of the oldest California families and the romantic interest in Kalem’s westerns, to the studio where Witzel posed her as a fashion plate, a flirt, and a post-Raphaelite beauty. Because the studios paid for publicity photos from Witzel, the would-be film performers paying out of pocket flocked to the studio to have portfolio shots taken. All of his sittings, whether studio commissioned or privately contracted, were contracted on a job basis. Consequently every motion picture company in the area felt free to make use of him. Ince-Triangle was his steadiest source of studio supply throughout the 1910s.
The volume of trade grew so great that Witzel was forced to follow the production procedures of the New York corporate studios, hiring a laboratory manager, Henry Nealson Smith, to oversee the retouching, developing, and finishing of photographic prints. Witzel’s earliest motion picture portraits display a number of visual approaches, beyond the general inclination toward the pathogenic. He favored bust and three quarter’s length shots over full figure depictions. His favorite pose had the body of the sitter in profile with the face turned 3/4s and the eyes looking directly at the onlooker. He had a penchant for dark backgrounds with indistinct detail, a mysterious space, perhaps wooded, perhaps empty. His exhibition prints tended to use richly shadowed “Rembrandt lighting,” using single source natural light in a studio, amplified, concentrated, or diffused by mirrors and scrims.
Witzel’s success prompted him to expand his business, opening a branch studio in Long Beach. In 1916 he hired away from rival Fred Hartsook the chief photographer of its Los Angeles branch, Walter Frederick Seely (1886-196?). Trained as a landscape painter, Seely had co-directed the Redwood Gallery in Eureka with his brother Ed Seely from 1907 to 1911, so knew how to run a studio. Seely stayed with Witzel until setting up an independent gallery under his own name in 1920 and created the most daringly designed images produced under the Witzel brand. His fine arts background inclined him to horizontal formats and reclining figures, a different orientation and disposition of subject than the vertical stock-in-trade of portraitists. A colorist whose eyes had been nourished by the natural tones of his native California, Seely imported into his photography an exquisite sense of tonal modulation and lighting dramatics. He favored the spare ornaments and props of pictorialist portraiture—the fat bellied urns, ewers, and ollas—and embraced pictorialism’s interest in exotic costume. He had a finer sense of pictorial design than Witzel, but not as great an interest in the subtleties of facial expression. That part of Witzel drawn to glitz—to visual sensation for its own sake—found an amplifying eye in Seely.
After Seely’s departure, Witzel sought someone who could take his place. After hiring a series of journeymen cameramen, Witzel discovered an artist in Texan Max Munn Autrey. As decidedly as Seely was a pictorialist, Autrey was a glamourist. He always sought for integral effect, poses that enhanced the sitter’s mystique, and lighting that made the image more sensuous and more spiritual simultaneously. The enthusiasm of Witzel’s motion picture clientele for Autrey’s work grew so great, that he set up a branch studio in Hollywood which Autrey manned from 1922 to 1924. The praise finally prompted Autrey to become independent.
Both Seely and Autrey would become independent artists working under their own credit lines in the early 1920s and to maintain private studios after being contracted by motion picture studios later in the decade.
After the forced relocation of Witzel’s Hill Street studio to 7th street in November 1923, and the departure of Autrey from the Hollywood branch in 1924, Albert Witzel’s zest for his craft declined. He no longer created imagery, explored lighting, or poses. He enjoyed club life and serving on the judging panel of beauty contests. He was distracted by an office romance, and then chronic illness. He retired from business in 1927, turning the studio over to his brother Charles who kept the brand viable well into the 1930s. The company would eventually be sold to Marcus Woro, proprietor of Sarony’s Philadelpia studio.
Albert Witzel died in 1929. From 1914 to 1924 his studio photographed more motion picture performers than any on the planet. David S. Shields