Great Collections: May 2018

Great Collections: May 2018

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.

Through an assembled collection of images found in the public domain and from archival donations and acquisitions, the site charts the evolution of the stage photograph from the studio tableaux of the 1870s to the theatrical scene still of the 1880s and 1890s to the publicity production still of the 20th century. It also documents landmark moments in stage decor, costuming, and lighting design.
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.”
The site is divided into sections by Photographers, Performers, Features, and Productions. The Photographers page features over 120 photographers and photography studios, known and unknown, who captured the American stage and its actors and performances from roughly 1865 to 1965. Each listing leads you into an extensive biography on the photographer or studio, and their work and focus in the theater. Images of their works lead you to more background and information on the subject.
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.
Under Productions, images found from hundreds of productions have been catalogued for a quick overview of what is available. Perhaps the richest assembly of information and images can be found in the Features section. Here, information and images from across the collection are compiled into special topic-based features with an editorial overview written by Dr. Shields. Features include Edwin Bower Hesser’s Strange and Arty Journey, Carnal Glory: Nudity and the Fine and Performing Arts 1890-1917, and Theatrical Portraiture and the Pathognomy of Performance, among others.
“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.

Great Collections: May 2018