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The Artist Behind the Artists: Lafayette W. Seavey
by David for group historicalziegfeld Nov 26, 2010


William Kurtz, arguably the most ingenious and experimental professional portrait photographer in the United States during the 1870s and 1880s, was typically trenchant in his diagnosis of the problem of photographic backgrounds. In 1871 he observed, “We frequently meet with the same background in twenty different pictures hanging in the same showcase. The different persons are costumed in the greatest variety of styles, but the background alone is sufficient to show at whose atelier the pictures originated. This is, plainly speaking, simply manufacturing pictures, and out of ten pictures perhaps only one has a background correct in tone—i.e., in only one of them face and figure contrast harmoniously with the background. This holds good not only when plain backgrounds are used, but more particularly when those that have fancy paintings on them are introduced.”(1) Kurtz pointed only to the most conspicuously frequent problem with background—its tonality was often dissonant with that of the sitter. Other problems obtruded. Ludicrously disproportionate background features, making the focal figure seem oddly small, or comically gigantic. Disparities of style between the sitters costume and the time and place invoked in background imagery. Most damning were backgrounds whose crudity of execution made them seem so cheaply artificial that the sitter becomes déclassé by association.

The weightiness of these problems caused certain photographers to eschew backgrounds, or to minimize them in the manner of the old daguerreotype artists: blank wall, a dark hang of curtain, a heavily carved chair. The problem with the minimalist approach was its conspicuous lack of ambition, particularly when compared with those few images in which the background was ‘fancy’ and the tonal relation between foreground figure and background well handled.

Numbers of the second generation of photographers—William Kurtz for instance—had been trained in the fine and graphic arts. Yet few painter-photographers had dealt with the peculiar difficulties of focus and lighting of objects on different planes. Nor had they the illusionistic expertise to made a three dimensional figure situated in the foreground harmonize with a two dimensional flat in the background creating the impression of an integral world. Indeed, only a small subset of painters had trained to deal with these matters of spatial disposition, lighting, and verisimilitude—theatrical scene painters. They were the masters of ‘giving reality to ideality.’ This sect of artist underwent an unusual apprentice style of training with one of the older masters of the mysteries, such as Henry Isherwood at Wallack’s Theatre. Usually a scenic artist worked in one theater. “He has a large studio up in the ‘flies,’ and it is there that the work is done.’ (2) Managers paid well for competence; $100 a week was common for artists connected with first rank houses in major American cities, a wage eclipsing that of all but the topmost rank of photographers. Yet there were several unusual scenicS artists, operating independent studios. It was from among the ranks of these independents that the supreme 19th-century artist of the photographic background would emerge—Lafayette W. Seavey.

In 1865 New York native Seavey and Gaspard Maeder, a scene painter trained by Isherwood, opened a studio in Lafayette Place, “where the firm made a specialty of painting scenery for traveling companies.” (3) Both men were versatile artists. Maeder specialized in verdure—glades, gardens, and meadows. Seavey handled architecture and perspective. Because traveling companies needed durable flats and props because of the repeated handling, Seavey and Maeder eschewed the usual water color paint used by most scenic artists, and used oils and fixed charcoal on canvas—huge rolls of canvas that they unfurled and painted at great speed. In 1868 Seavey diversified his studio, supplying the first backgrounds for photographic work.

The timing deserves attention. It was the same year in which the first specialist in theatrical photography, Napoleon Sarony, opened his portrait studio in New York. The ex-lithographer had spent five years in England, 1862-1867, perfecting his camera craft. In 1867 he returned to New York intending to set up a manufactory for albumin photographic paper. Within a year, he had intuited the peculiar possibilities of theatrical photography as a professional métier.(4) His artistic ambitions had been stirred when he realized the insatiable demand for imagery to feed the star system on Broadway—the necessity for repeated sittings by performers to show each new role being put before the public—the prospect of having the most handsome and accomplished posers as a regular clientele—the enormous visual scope of characters and scenes, indeed all history and all of the globe and all of the fantasized world as well. To adequately adequate meet this mimetic challenge, Sarony knew to call upon the visual expertise of the theater itself. His own background in the graphic artists had schooled him to a realization for such work, one availed oneself of a specialist. He approached Seavey precisely because the artist had chosen to be entrepreneurial, setting up his own shop, rather than become a fixture at some Theater.

In 1871 Seavey published the following advertisement in the pages of The Photographer’s Friend:

PRICE $7.00
Lastest Improved
Of June 10, 1871

Remarks heard at the N.P.A. Convention

“Your Rembrandt is larger than any other used for the same purpose.”
“Costs less by $3.00.” “Will do more work.”
“It revolves and has one more movement.”
“That swing joint is a great improvement.”
“Send me a set of irons for my old Background.”
“So you make one package 5 in. x 5 in. x 5 feet long; freight charged on that won’t be much.”
“Is it patented?” Ans. “No; because we are constantly improving.”


Seavey returns to his Studio and combines in one Background the good qualities of the fine styles he has painted during the last three years, adding the hints suggested in conversation with the leading photographers, and the best points observed in the works of foreign exhibitors, which Background he now offers for sale at his SCENIC STUDIO.
And at the Leading Stock Warehouses.

First, we should note that Seavey is advertising. Though he hasn’t entirely abandoned the world of theatrical scene painting, he has jettisoned the guild mentality of its painter brotherhood. The new art of photography had exploded internationally with a welter of competing methods, products, and claims. It resorted to that mechanism that most decisively sorted the viable from the fanciful—the market—and exploited all of the accoutrements of 19th-century large scale enterprise: association, print advertising, customer claims, aggressive pricing, assertions of novelty, and branding. In this brief ad Seavey does it all. He has a new product, a two sided background painting on a easily pivoting iron frame. One side exploited the latest craze in portrait photography—William Kurtz’s “Rembrandt” style, with it dramatic gradation from shadow to light in a single direction across the pictorial field. Kurtz used a large concave disk positioned behind a sitter to achieve his effects. A side or slightly elevated light (he initially used mirrors and a skylight to control light direction) would create shade within the near arc of the bowl and a gradated intensity to the opposite side. Seavy achieved the same effect with a represented scene graphically for a background. The flip side of the flat was a rustic scene drawn from Corot or another of the contemporary painters.

Another thing that the advertisement reveals is that an international supply has arisen in a short amount of time for photographic backgrounds. Seavey recognizes the competition and commands the patronage of the reader on the grounds of lower cost, greater convenience in use, ease of shipping, technical innovation, and up to the moment aesthetic fashionability. As Kurtz’s critique of backgrounds indicated, background paintings existed as a standard, but lamentable, feature of the portrait scene. The French had made them a feature of their studio imagery early in the 1850s—unsurprising given the fact the Daguerre, the father of photography, had been a Parisian theatrical painter. But in New York in the 1860s the art had been handled by mediocre practitioners such as W. A. Ashe. What Seavey brought to the market was superior imagery and spectacular variety—500 scenes by 1873. (5) Before the end of the decade he would count Sarony, Jeremiah Gurney, and Kurtz among his loyal customers, and an international clientele. He exhibited his wares in exhibitions in Paris in London and lectured on the art of the background at professional meetings in the United States.

As the one background artist to have published reflections during the 19th century on the art of preparing a photographic scene, Seavey supplies as close as we can get to a theory of grounding images. Not all that he wrote reflects on his findings about visual tact and focus, for he felt obliged to propagandize against plain backdrops: “If you, reader, have never used anything but a plain background, never tell anybody of it, especially when away from home. What would you think of a professed artist who painted all his landscapes with flat skies, the same strength at the top as near the horizon, and no clouds? Or of one who painted a plain flate background to all his portraits, infants as well as adults?” (6) Such moments are only telling in their exploitation of photographers’ wishes to be esteemed image makers on the same order as painters. Seavey’s revelations come when he speaks of the qualities of effective images:

SEAVEY: "From the study of the works of freeing and native artists it seems to be an established rule that in full and three-quarter-length figures the background should be darker towards the bottom, say for one-third or one-fourth of the distance. The effect of such shading is that the figure seems to stand more firmly, a sense of repose or quietude is imparted, and the attention of the spectator is directed unconsciously to the face." (p. 567)

Seavey’s way of evaluating the proportionate lighting of objects in a picture was to obscure items in the pictorial field with a piece of neutral tinted paper. This enabled him to see quickly if things were overlit. He demonstrated the effectiveness of the method by analyzing a celebrated picture at the Buffalo Convention of the N.P.A., showing the profile portrait of a woman in profile depended upon its effectiveness to a small pea-sized area of deep shadow on the lower left background, a depth of tonality that anchored and balanced the muted tonality of the rest of the image. (7) This led him to a maxim that many good pictures can be immeasurably improved by a small portion of deep shadow. From the mid-1870s onward he painted these into backgrounds.

SEAVEY: "The power behind the throne in many of the composition pictures which have attracted the attention of the public is the back-ground—silent, substantial, powerful, exerting a deep and ofttimes mysterious and unrecognized influence over the products of the knights of the camera. Atmosphere, delicacy, refinement, strength, vigor, elaborations, balance of light and shade, are imparted by the background." (8)

Seavey’s characterization of the role of the background in a composed picture could well serve as a confession of his own role in late 19th-century Western portrait photography. He became the common element in the works of the most eminent artists in the major cities on both sides of the Atlantic. His advertisements declared his dominion: From 1870’s “”Our Backgrounds are now in use in the Galleries of Sarony, Brady, Kurtz, Gurney, Fredericks, and the principal galleries on this continent.” to 1881’s “Sarony’s celebrities, also Mora’s, Anderson’s, Gibert & Bacon’s, Rocher’s, Landy’s, Kurtz’s etc., are made with Seavey’s Backgrounds,” to 1888’s “All Backgrounds now in use by Falk, New York, are from our hands.” The names cited give a sense of the rise and fall of reputations. The invariable stable dimension of aesthetic worth was a Seavey background.

How did he maintain this dominance as the ‘power behind the throne?’ By adopting a factory model of production—a shop managed for over 20 years by Charles Trembley with financial oversight handled by M. M. Govan—supported by as many as twenty workers doing fabrication, sales, and shipping of Seavey’s designs. Another important dimension of his success was his energy as a clubman in an age when male sociability mattered. He belonged to Sarony’s Kit-Kat Sketch Club, the Outing Club, and numerous theatrical bodies, as well as three major professional photographic associations. He designed the parties of their meetings, played cornet in their musical entertainments, and sometimes served as master of ceremonies. But most important was his talent in cannibalizing the art, architecture, and fashion of the moment to meet the intense demand for modish piquancy by photographers. He published “Ye Monthlie Bulletin”—a regular update of his studio’s productions in the columns of photographic periodicals beginning in 1881. The names and numbers attest to his ability to surf the moment. He provided furnishings to suit interior backgrounds, such as “Eastlake Steps” for townhouse interiors. He supplied paper mache boulders to adorn his Gainsborough glades. At the annual conventions he launched his major new looks. During the his 30th year in business, in 1899, he premiered “Chateau du lude, the Beethoven, Mozart, The Loefler Garden, the Reynolds Terrace, When the Wind Blows from the Sea, Alma Tadema Composition, the Berlin Salon, The Waldegrave, and The Window and the Ray of Light.” (9)

Seavey died in 1901, but the profession in no way saw his passing as the end of an aesthetic approach. Thirty four years of designs and accessories were sold at auction on March 9, 1903, with the entire estate purchased and divided equally among New York’s Rough & Caldwell company and Boston’s Packard Brothers. (10) The estate included a vast trove of negatives and photographs—his sample images of the various paintings he offered. These he would ship off to prospective buyers. One wonders what happened to these images lacking the foreground celebrity. In a sense they would be the truest expression of Seavey’s own sense of the importance of his contribution to the art of photography. Background as foreground, so you can see the place where the mood lived.
© David S. Shields

(1) Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, Handbook of the Practice and Art of Photography (Philadelphia: Benerman & Wilson, 1871), p. 309.
(2) Arthur Hornblow, “How a Play is Produced,” The American Magazine, 36, (July-December, 1893), p. 619.
(3) “Maeder, Gaspard,” Appleton’s annual Cyclopadia and register of Important Events 17 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1893), p. 558.
(4) “Our Illustration,” Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin 25 (1894), p. 91.
(5) John Towler, The Silver Sunbeam (New York: E. &. H. T. Anthony, 1873), p. 602.
(6) “Backgrounds and their Uses,” The British Journal of Photography (Nov. 27, 1874), p. 569.
(7) “Backgrounds and their Uses [2],” The Photographic News (September 17, 1875), pp. 452-53.
(8) “Backgrounds: a Review,” Photographic Mosaics, pp. 106-07.
(9) The Photo-Beacon 9 (1899), p. 188.
(10) “Notes, News & Extracts,” The Photo-Beacon 35 (1903), p 231.


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