Back in October I wrote about a mysterious photo in my collection of Hollywood photographs, one taken by Eugene Robert Richee of a plainly-dressed woman wearing a rather splendid hat. Photographer and studio names are given on the back, but the sitter is not identified; that post garnered a number of suggested identifications for the subject, including Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, and Barbara Stanwyck.
Since then, I have bought a number of photographs of “Old Hollywood” sitters, sometimes with the idea of having the photographer (where identified) represented in the collection; in those cases I haven’t worried much about the photos’ subjects. In thinking about these images recently, I thought they might serve as a test case on what old portrait photographs can tell us about their subjects’ identities, starting with the date the image was made.
Of the three in question here, I would place this unidentified actor by Walter Frederick Seely (1886–1959) as the earliest, based on the pictorialist technique. (I am assuming, for the purpose of this post, that all three images show actors – this man, at least, is evidently in costume for a role.) Before 1930, the Hollywood publicity machine was still in the process of formation, and independent photographers sometimes worked on their own, or as part of a larger operation, or for one of the film studios – and sometimes all three.
It is not surprising, then, to find Seely’s actor subject being photographed by an independent photographer, one who will then, presumably, provide studios and the press with ready-made images. What is interesting in this case is to find a moody self-consciousness in pose and technique; identifying the subject, and the role, would square the circle.
Before forming his own studio, Seely worked for Albert W. Witzel (1879–1929), whose Witzel Studio produced the second image. This subject shows his delight to the camera; he is also nattily dressed. He stands out in elegant relief to the stylized backdrop, which wavers before our eyes. I thought, when I bought this photo, that I had seen one like it of the silent superstar Charles Ray (1891–1943), but I now think that this man remains unidentified.
With this man, and the next, we enter the realm of haircut and dress – the off-center part, the rounded collar, perhaps even the pattern on the tie have something to tell us. The man in the Seely photo is anachronistically dressed, but the latter two are shown in contemporary dress, with clues scattered throughout the image.
The last in this triumvirate is a man by C. Heighton Monroe (1888–1965?), formerly of Hartsook Studio in Los Angeles. Like the Witzel Studio photo, Monroe’s subject is well-dressed; unlike that joyous young man, this one is decidedly sober. In his case, as in the others, I wonder what became of him, and if we might all recognize him in photos dating from the 1930s or later.
About Scott C. Steward
Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward →