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.
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.”
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:
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.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!