Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
It’s 1881. You’re an actor in the latest smash-hit sensation. Wanting to gain a little publicity for yourself, the show, and a potential national tour, the producers send you off to get your very own cabinet card portrait. The great photographer Napoleon Sarony can’t immediately fit you in, but you’ve heard about a studio down on Broadway and 22nd Street where this guy named Falk can deliver. He’s got the backdrops and props for action shots, he creates great light using the latest in new-fangled electricity, and he’s not afraid to show a little leg.
Benjamin J. Falk was born October 14, 1853. A life-long New Yorker, he studied photography at the College of the City of New York, graduating in 1872. While still in school, Falk worked for the photographer George Rockwood, but by 1877 had set up his own studio on 14th Street. (For a more complete history of Falk visit David S. Sheilds’s excellent website Broadway Photographs from which much of the biographical information in this post comes.)
The center of New York City theatrical life in 1877 was Madison Square. Falk moved his studio to 949 Broadway (at 22nd Street) in 1881 to be closer to the action and his clientele. From there he steadily built his reputation as an insightful portraitist of theatrical characters. The image of child actress Gertie Homan on the left is from the play Editha’s Burglar. Adapted from the beloved book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the play tells the story of a sensitive little girl who convinces a burglar to take her own possessions over those of her parents. Falk perfectly captures the innocence and energy of little Editha. The photograph also shows off his effective use of lighting.
Almost from the beginning, Falk’s Broadway studio featured electric arc lights. In 1883 he took his lights to Madison Square Theatre to capture a scene from A Russian Honeymoon, then running at the theatre. The resulting images were the first to capture a full theatrical production scene in a New York playhouse.
Falk eventually ceded the work of stage photography to the Byron Company studio, but he continued to create innovative and beautiful portraits such as the one below of Ida Mülle from the opera Orpheus and Eurydice.
For the Gilbert and Sullivan blockbuster operetta The Mikado, Falk positioned the main love interest, Yum Yum, inside one of her songs. Performed at the beginning of the second act, Yum Yum compares herself to the sun and moon.
“Ah, pray make no mistake,
We are not shy;
We’re very wide awake,
The moon and I!”
Not only is it a stunning photograph, but it calls to my mind images from French filmmaker Georges Méliès’s Le Voyages dans le Lune. Méliès’s groundbreaking work was made 16 years after this cabinet card fell into circulation.
Changes in the city skyline eventually forced Falk out of his Broadway location. The construction of more and taller buildings blocked out much of the light Falk needed. (The site of the Falk’s Broadway studio is currently occupied by the Flatiron Building.) In the early 1890s he moved to 24th Street just off Madison Square Park, affording better access to the light his work required.
From the 24th Street studio Falk continued capturing theatrical characters such as the one below from The Devil’s Deputy. In the show, comedic actor Francis Wilson plays a country inn-keeper and bridegroom who gets caught up in the switch-a-roo schemes of an actor on the run.
Ever chasing the light, Falk moved again in 1900, this time to the roof-top solarium of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Making use of natural light during the day, Falk also maintained an interior studio for moodier portraits, completely outfitted with electric lights using his own set-ups complete with flash and umbrellas.Falk continued theatrical portraiture, but the businessman in him took advantage of the hotel’s social scene. He kept the studio open late for any of the more wealthy theatre-goers wishing to have their first night evening attire captured forever on film.
The man himself appears above (far right, one arm holding the camera, in what might be the world’s first selfie) with fellow photographers. In addition to begin highly regarded as a portrait photographer, Falk was respected by his colleagues for his work to found the Photographers’ Copyright League protecting the intellectual property rights of photographers. When Falk passed away on March 19, 1925, he left a legacy of technological and artistic innovation and a simply beautiful body of work.
The Falk photographs featured in this blog are brought to you by the Museum’s Theatrical production digitization project supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.