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© David S. Shields

Photographers for Ziegfeld #11: Hal Phyfe_david  Jul 5, '09 9:03 PM
by david for group historicalziegfeldgroup #116

Sometime during the mid-1920s Hal Phyfe decided that he was growing less interested in painting covers for magazines and more in photography. During World War 1 he had done aerial photography with an Army flying Unit in France, but his passion was sculpture and painting. Witnessing the extraordinary development of glamour portraiture in the early 1920s changed his mind.

His pedigree was one of the finest of any New Yorker, tracing back to the greatest furniture maker of the Federal period, Duncan Phyfe. His bohemian manner, eccentric dress, extraordinary kitchen skills, and wit made him welcome everywhere, and strangely placed him above the rivalries and allegiances that divided Broadway. So every producer courted him, from Morris Gest to David Belasco.

Ziegfeld was not immune to Phyfe's unusual charm, and though Phyfe favored half-length and seated shots, and Ziegfeld whole body portraits, the 'Glorifier of the American Girl' hired the artist on several occasions in the late 1920s and early '30s. Phyfe greatly admired Alfred Cheney Johnston's photographs and photographically quoted ACJ on several occasions. But Phyfe's portraits have their own distinct aura. During these sittings Phyfe's dog (a celebrity in the cafe world of NY) would rest at the foot of the camera, disturbing the shoot only when he disapproved of the music playing on the record in the background. He greatly disliked Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" which Phyfe adored.

When Ira Hill's mental decline caused the fall off of his business as the chief photographer for New York Society, Phyfe installed himself as Hill's successor and became for the remainder of his life (when he wasn't on his semi-annual jaunts to Hollywood to shoot portrait publicity for the studios) a fixture at every ball and charity event in the city. David S. Shields

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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    studiolymar wrote on Jul 5, '09
    Very interesting, thx for sharing, i always admire the skill and professionalism of those photographers in the early days of photography. I notice a slight soft-focus on the portraits, probably done on purpose, are is it my eyes.?

    profdash wrote on Jul 6, '09
    Maurice, he did use soft focus at times. He also removed sections of emulsion on photographic plates, drew or painted on the negative backgrounds, and was unembarrassed about doing heavy retouching. Phyfe experimented with the chemical mix on his developer, so their are some vintage prints that are unstable in their toning, as well as some that are greatly yellowed. But his finest prints are up there with M. I. Boris's and Adolph DeMeyer's for textural beauty.

    gumlegs wrote on Jul 6, '09, edited on Jul 6, '09
    That soft-focus look was quite popular in the teens and twenties, and is described by Karl Brown in his book, "Adventures with D. W. Griffith." Brown describes the work of Henrik Sartov, who produced very, very soft portraits, "the magic lens that performed his miracles was quite long of focus, six or eight inches, and in order to make a full-head close-up, he had to back away over almost to the other end of the stage while his lens-shade seemed eighteen inches long." Brown goes on to characterize Sartov's "miracle lens" as being not "much more than the bottom of a beer bottle," but its very optical imperfections were what made the images so arresting.

    studiolymar wrote on Jul 6, '09
    We, photographers of today have an easy job, direct picture ready, digital darkroom at our fingertips..but can we equal those masterpieces of photography..? guess not.
    Tnx for sharing those interesting articles.
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