Photography & The American Stage: The Visual Culture of American Theater 1865-1965
Broadway Photographs (broadway.cas.sc.edu) is a website and online resource for students of American Theater, devotees of performing arts photography, historians of American visual culture, curators of image collections, and collectors of dramatic, operatic, balletic, and vaudevillian visual memorabilia. Its mission is to provide images and information to “elucidate the visual culture of American performing arts and to illustrate the work of the most significant photographers recording the American stage.”
Hosted by the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of South Carolina, and curated by Dr. David S. Shields, McClintock Professor at the University of South Carolina, the site, which launched in 2006, provides biographical profiles and histories of the most artistically significant and culturally influential theatrical photographers and studios. It showcases the work of camera artists operating in cities around the country from the Civil War to the Vietnam War era, or, in theatrical terms, from The Black Crook to Fiddler on the Roof. Listings include a pictorial directory of performers, a resonant image or series of images from various photographers for a performing artist, as well as a capsule biography indicating his or her significance in the chronicle of the America stage.
What is unique about Broadway Photographs is that it is a work in progress, and visitors to the site are encouraged to help identify, correct, supplement, or amend the profiles and attributions supplied. “Given the propensity of publicity offices of theaters to fictionalize biography, misrepresent what is going on in a performance, and to ballyhoo matters in their messages affixed to the back of photographs; and given the frequent ignorance of reporters, editors, provincial theater managers who added their inscriptions to the images, the likelihood of error plagues anyone who would credit what appears on the original prints. So I appeal to your critical aid in sorting out fact from fiction, to correct misidentifications, and to supply elaborating circumstance for what appears here.”
Over 700 actors of the stage during this same time period are identified in the Performers section. Click on any of these links and you’ll go to an extensive biography and images of the performer, taken over time, by different photographers and from their work in different performances. “Theatre is the most evanescent of experiences, and while portraiture of a person is thought to reflect the character of a person, the performer has no character except for the one they have assumed for their performance. Portraits of many characters taken on by a single actor can demonstrate their expressive capacity,” said Dr. David S. Shields, curator of this website, during a brief telephone interview.
“There are a number of different categories of theatre photography being sought after by collectors today. The generation of women who emerged during the war years-Caroline F. C. Bassett (a.k.a. C. Floyd Coleman), Alice McClure, Charlotte Fairchild, Mary Dale Clarke, and Florence Vandamm-had all been trained as painters and had all gravitated to photography, and all enjoyed a period of commercial success as theatrical image artists. Photographs by black photographer Edward Elcha, whose signature on images was ‘Progress N.Y.,’ are very hot right now; as are photos depicting the stars of Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies,” says Dr. Shields.
What started out in 2006 as an academic challenge to build an easy to use web resource for students of early 20th century performing arts visual culture, has morphed through interest among theatrical historians, memorabilia dealers, and museum curators into an invaluable resource for the preservation of the American Theater. Expand your knowledge of theater history at broadway.cas.sc.edu.