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© David S. Shields

The First Stage Pictures    Feb 23, '11 9:48 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #538

While numbers of the histories of the stage remark the first successful photographic rendering of a stage scene--1883's Second Act scene of A Russian Honeymoon--captured by Benjamin Falk using a battery of electric arc lights, few comment on any of the production stills made on Broadway until the emergence of Joseph Byron late in the 1890s. Yet numbers of these images were produced--usually at the instigation of the Frohman brothers. They survive as the most eloquent expressions of the visual culture of the American stage at the end of the 19th century.

All of the images below were taken by Falk using electric, rather than magnesium flash, illumination. The selection below begins with the first known stage photo, and then covers important images from the next decade, with a preponderance lensed during the 1880s. It would appear that Charles Frohman determined in 1888 to make stills a dimension of dramatic publicity when productions went on tour through the American circuits. From 1883 to 1888 what stills were produced were for in-house use, providing touring companies with set and staging reference, insuring that production values were maintained when a play left Broadway for theaters in other cities.

I've seen two 'set' photos from the mid-1880s obviously used for continuity. One of the things interesting about these early stage images is the barrenness of the stage surface. Once stills became common, producers took greater care in providing additional visual interest to their designs by providing rugs underfoot so the bare boards would not be conspicuous. I am not at all sure whether the Ben Hur image below was taken on stage. In the 1890s photographic background painters were entirely capable of providing knock off flats imitating the scenery of current productions. There is something of the flavor of a Lafayette W. Seavey in the image of the Roman colosseum box background.

I have provided the production dates in the image descriptions. David S. Shields

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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    ziegfeldgrrl wrote on Apr 1, '11
    Love these!!!!!
    Exceptional! And agree with Maurice about how stunning it is to see such well light photos of the stage so early.

    valadga wrote on Feb 24, '11
    wonderfull pictures, thankyou.
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