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© David S. Shields

Sarony Shoots Cleopatra: Mrs. Brown Potter 1889    Oct 18, '10 4:01 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #469

Because the archive of Napoleon Sarony, the American theater's first important portrait photographer, disappeared after E. Burrow bought the studio at the beginning of the 20th century, we have lost the ability to gauge Sarony's eye as a poser and composer of images. Seeing his approach to an entire sitting is perhaps the best way of evaluating his talent. Here is a reconstruction of one important shoot from the late 1880s--Mrs. James Brown Potter's Cleopatra shoot in 1889 while playing Shakespeare's 'Antony & Cleopatra' in New York City.

From 1886 to 1896 the sultry Mrs. Potter belonged to the hottest stage pairing of the era, partnering with the English hunk, Kyrle Bellew. For beauty the couple had no rival in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, when the went to the studio for publicity, each visited the photographer separately. Sarony sold each of the images as a cabinet card. Though the costume is that which Mrs. Brown wore on stage, the props and background painting belonged to Sarony, who possessed a trove of flats and objects greater than that possessed by any producer in North America.

The penchant for full bodied images is apparent in these 18 images. The head shots were partitioned from full bodied images. Half of the images below were elephant/imperial cabinet cards 9x13. Half were 5x7 inches. While fading often afflicts earlier Sarony images, these retain enough of their visual information to convey Potter's handsomeness, and her avoidance of operatic gesture. David S. Shields

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