Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
27 years. Over 2,000 Broadway productions. Countless negatives of every conceivable actor who graced the New York stage. Saying that the Vandamm Studio was the photograph studio for Broadway would be putting it mildly. Run by the indefatigable husband and wife team of Florence Vandamm and George R. Thomas (better known in Broadway circles as Tommy Vandamm), their photographs spectacularly capture theater from 1923-1950.
Florence Vandamm was born in England, where she studied to be a painter of portraits and miniatures. She first picked up photography only as a complement to her other art, but her talent was immediately apparent. In 1908, at the age of 25, she opened her first portrait photography studio in the West End of London. In 1917, she married an American man, George R. Thomas, who was so enthralled with her career that he asked her to teach him the tricks of the trade. In just a few years, they opened another studio, this one specializing in fashion photography. When a financial depression hit in 1923, they emigrated to New York City. They opened Vandamm Studio and the rest, as they say, is history.
Florence continued to focus on shooting the portraits and publicity shots, taken in the the couple’s studio on West 57th Street. In true New York fashion, actors would rush out of the theater right after the final curtain call, in full costume no less, to have their portraits taken. As Florence remembered: “But blase New York! Once John Geilgud and Judith Evans crossed 57th Street in costume as Hamlet and the Queen and no one noticed them….” Which is hard to imagine after seeing the outcome:Continuing the story, she said, “But Maurice Evans drew a good crowd when he showed up as Falstaff.” Which is wholly unsurprising! It is easy to see the artistry and depth in Florence’s work, while Tommy excelled at capturing the production stills. He would go to the final dress rehearsals to take notes, plan his shots, and usually take the photographs after a performance. According to a remarkably candid interview in the New York Times, some of the shows he most enjoyed photographing were Lucrece, Journey’s End, and Porgy and Bess. The shadows only intensify these thematically dark productions.
In the same interview he also mentions the hardest show he ever shot, Jumbo which suddenly makes sense when you realize that the show is basically a circus, complete with elephants and scenes such as this:The Vandamm Studio was so highly respected that they even had a show at our very own City Museum. Opening on October 16, 1937, “New York Theatre Productions as Photographed by Vandamm, 1923-1937” showcased prints from an estimated 50,000 studio negatives. The exhibition ended up marking the mid-point in the working life of Vandamm Studio. Tommy passed away in 1944, and Florence added full-stage production stills to her portrait work. She finally retired in 1950 at the age of 67 leaving behind an incredible visual record of American theater.
Images from this blog were digitized and cataloged with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.