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© David S. Shields

The First Candid Actress Portraits 1903    Apr 16, '12 8:11 AM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #641

Joseph Byron, the poetic flash photographer of theatrical productions, was forever trying the diversify his business. Besides theatrical production stills, he had become the foremost urban landscape photographer of his era, a capable photographer of ships, and experimented with animal portraiture from 1895-1905.

In 1903 he convinced the foremost actresses of the day to permit him taking portraits of them in their homes. The traditional reluctance of performers to be depicted in unstaged surroundings was overcome by Byron's suggestion that he was engaging in a theatrical version of "Home Portraiture." The more artistic of the society portrait photographers had developed a sub-genre of portraiture showing persons in family settings, particularly children, artistically toned and shaded. Wealthy sitters welcomed the opportunity to show off their estates, and the evidences of their taste in collecting and interior design.

Because society portraiture had developed in explicit distinction from the elaborately staged sort of portraiture devised by Napoleon Sarony for theatrical figures, Byron's notion of appropriating home portraiture for performers had a kind of shock value. Even the greatest performers did not command the wealth of the Blue Book set, so there would be no extraordinary domestic exhibition of antique furnishings or old master paintings, yet the connection that the greatest actresses had with the artistic world of their day, and their acute taste, might offer some sort of compensation.

Byron intended the actress home portraits to be a series purchasable by the public. Multiple images were taken of each actress in various rooms in the house. Nearly 40 of the pictures were copyrighted. Numbers appeared as illustrations in the national magazines.

I have selected one portrait for each of the chosen actresses to suggest the sort of work Byron was attempting. Each has an interesting gradation of shadow to light. Rarely is a back wall parallel to the pictorial field. The sitter appears in a gown or evening dress rather than a house dress. Rarely does she engage the onlooker with her eyes. Rather, she is absorbed in her familiar surroundings. These images are the origins of a long-lived and well developed tradition of portraiture. These original images stress stillness and composure rather than the capture of life on the run. David S. Shields

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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    andreamoon wrote on Apr 16
    These photos are great! Thanks so much for sharing them.

    ziegfeldgrrl wrote on Apr 19
    Another lovely and insightful album, thanks so much David.

    zfolliestribute wrote on May 25
    Wow, these are fantastic!
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