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Stunning Photographs of Early 20th Century Theater in New York

by Allison Meier on September 30, 2013

Charles Weidman and Martha Graham in the Neighborhood Playhouse production of Pagan Poems, 1928 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division

Charles Weidman and Martha Graham in the Neighborhood Playhouse production of “Pagan Poems” (1928), photographed by Florence Vandamm (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division)

Most theatrical productions of early 20th century New York were captured by Vandamm Studio, the most prolific studio of performing arts photography at the time. Yet Florence Vandamm, the person behind the studio, has received little recognition for her tenacity in being a woman with her own thriving studio (which survived the Great Depression) and her meticulous work in defining how the performing arts were documented.

Florence Vandamm directing the light and cameras to document The Constant Wife, 1951, with John Emery, Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne. Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Florence Vandamm directing the light and cameras to document “The Constant Wife” (1951), with John Emery, Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne. (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Pioneering Poet of Light: Photographer Florence Vandamm & the Vandamm Studio opened earlier this month at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, drawing heavily from the Vandamm Theatrical Photography Collection to examine the five decades of Vandamm’s career, from when she started her own studio in 1908 in London, to her relocation to New York during the English economic downturn of the 1920s where she worked into the 1960s.

“The Vandamm Studio is seen merely as a documenter of performance and portraitist — specialties that are not seen as art photography,” Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Curator of Exhibitions for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, told Hyperallergic. “But we believe that Florence Vandamm was, in herself, a photographic innovator.”

Florence Vandamm, photographed by Joseph Costa, 1960 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Florence Vandamm, photographed by Joseph Costa, 1960
Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Vandamm worked at the beginning of her career with her husband Tommy, an American, until he passed away in 1944. Originally, she was interested in being a painter, studying at the Royal Academy. But when she started to use photography as a tool for her portraits, it became clear that her real talent was with the camera and lighting. The portraits she later took of Broadway stars in their costumes in her studio, where shadows and lighting were carefully formed around traditional poses, became a trademark. Curator Cohen-Stratyner notes that it’s this adherence that borders on addiction to “clarity” that could make her work for some feel mechanical, but what also makes her an especially interesting photographer to examine closer.

“She understood and managed light at a time of experimentation in both photographic and theater lighting,” Cohen-Stratyner explained. “She photographed great faces — international famous performers, unique faces of writers and production teams, and proud faces of the stage crew. Trusted by both performers and designers, she was able to find beauty and mystery in designed environments and the random aspects of backstage.”

While stars like Leonard Bernstein, Katharine Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, Marlon Brando, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, and Gregory Peck all stepped in front of her lens, she also captured the often overlooked laborers of theater with photographs of the production crew, interested in this documentation of process along with the portraiture. She also was an early photographer of pioneers in modern dance like Charles Weidman, Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey. She often went to theater rehearsals, read scripts, and would plan out the shoot and its photography of the performance with painstaking care.

Cohen-Stratyner stated that beyond Vandamm’s photography career, she was also an activist in the suffrage movement and in “setting up image expectations of strong women.” And even if her name isn’t a familiar one, anyone looking back at the New York performing arts from the 1920s to 60s has likely seen her eye and careful composition. After she passed away in 1966, her archives made their way to the New York Public Library, which you can also explore online. In conjunction with the exhibition, there’s also a blog channel just for Vandamm Studio where Cohen-Stratyner is posting research on different aspects of this for too long overlooked photographer.

Here are a few of Florence Vandamm’s photographs from both in front and behind the early 20th century New York theater stage:

Prop master for Victoria Regina.  The candelabra and wax flowers are in the scenery below. Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Prop master for “Victoria Regina.” The candelabra and wax flowers are in the scenery below. (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Scenery documentation for Victoria Regina, 1935 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Scenery documentation for “Victoria Regina” (1935) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

 

Gertrude Lawrence, photographed in costume for Candle Light, 1929 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Gertrude Lawrence, photographed in costume for “Candle Light” (1929) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Mildred Smith in Beggar's Holiday, 1947 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Mildred Smith in “Beggar’s Holiday” (1947) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Edward Everett Horton, posed in the studio, late 1950s Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Edward Everett Horton, posed in the studio, late 1950s (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

John Bubbles as Sporting Life in the original cast of Porgy & Bess, 1935 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

John Bubbles as Sporting Life in the original cast of “Porgy & Bess” (1935) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Lynn Fontanne, photographed resting behind the scenery during a rehearsal of Noel Coward's Point Valaine, 1935 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Lynn Fontanne, photographed resting behind the scenery during a rehearsal of Noel Coward’s “Point Valaine” (1935) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Dorothy Parker, 1924, photographed at the back of Harold Ross' brownstone. Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Dorothy Parker, 1924, photographed at the back of Harold Ross’ brownstone. (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Dolores Costello in her dressing room, Hollywood, 1928 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,  Billy Rose Theatre Division

Dolores Costello in her dressing room, Hollywood (1928) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest, 1935 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Humphrey Bogart in “The Petrified Forest” (1935) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Oscar Hammerstein II watching rehearsals of Allegro, 1847 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Oscar Hammerstein II watching rehearsals of “Allegro” (1947) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Stage crew portrait for Macbeth, 1941, including Maurice Evans (in costume), Perry Watkins (far left), director Margaret Webster, Tommy Vandamm, and lighting designer Jean Rosenthal. Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Stage crew portrait for “Macbeth” (1941) including Maurice Evans (in costume), Perry Watkins (far left), director Margaret Webster, Tommy Vandamm, and lighting designer Jean Rosenthal. (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Key sheet of portraits and head shots of Miriam Hopkins, ca. 1941 Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Key sheet of portraits and head shots of Miriam Hopkins (1941) (courtesy The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Vandamm Theatrical Photograph Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Pioneering Poet of Light: Photographer Florence Vandamm & the Vandamm Studio is in the Astor Gallery at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through February 28. 

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