When Napoleon Sarony died in 1896, Benjamin J. Falk ascended to the first place in the world of performing arts photography. Born on October 14th, 1853, Benjamin J. Falk grew up in New York City. He graduated from the College of the City of New York with a B.S. in 1872, while concurrently serving as a technician under photographer George Rockwood. His first ambition was to be a graphic artist, so he attended classes at the NY Academy of Design while maintaining a studio with Jacob Schloss. "Being naturally of an investigating turn of mind he interested himself in scientific studies. After making crayons for five years, he enlarged his studio into a photographic gallery. In 1881 he moved to Broadway, where the business grew rapidly, developing largely in the line of portraits of celebrities."
Falk’s first studio, located on 14th street, became wholly devoted to photography in 1877. His distance from the theater district, however, prompted his 1881 relocation to 947-49 Broadway. The Broadway Studio served for 11 years until high-rises obscured the sunlight needed to maintain a day long shooting schedule, forcing him to relocate to 13-15 East 24th Street. In 1900, Falk relocated to the roof of the Waldorf Astoria. The solarium supplied superb natural light during the day, and his 25x30 operating room became the envy of the photographic fraternity.
During the Waldorf period, Falk favored a Hermagis lens with a 12-inch focal length. In 1903 he briefly experimented with stereographic portraits. But his standard issue was a platinum print portrait, on buff paper for home or office display. Because the studio was ensconced on the 15th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, it became the favorite haunt of first-nighters wishing a memento of good times in their evening dress. As Falk’s advertising quipped, "every suite in the hotel is practically a dressing room." Like William Kurtz a generation before him, Falk kept the studio open until 11:00 pm to accommodate the bon ton, shooting his after sundown work "by a new method of electric lighting." The light rig consisted of "an umbrella frame, about four feet in diameter, with a white silk roof. Around the inside of the frame are arranged twenty-one lamps of 100 candle-power each, with a larger lamp of 150 candle-power." When the exposure took place, the candle-power was doubled by an electrical surge.
Falk’s familiarity with electric illumination dated almost immediately after the electrification of Manhattan in 1880. Only William Kurtz predated him in the United States as a user of electrical illumination for studio work. Falk installed arc lights as a secondary source of illumination in his Broadway Studio in 1881. Yet his greatest fame attached to taking the arc lights into the theaters to illuminate, for the first time, stage pictures from commercial productions. Having read in 1882 of James Notman’s experiment photographing the performance of "Oedipus, the King" at Harvard University using electric illumination, Falk determined to accomplish the same in a major house rather than a student theater. In March 1883 he photographed the finale of Act II of "The Russian Honeymoon." For the next decade, Falk issued "photo-light" stage pictures of several productions, publishing them under his own imprimatur rather that supplying them as publicity for a producer. The greatest of these stills series were taken for "The Rajah," "The Old Homestead," and "A Trip to China Town." When Joseph Byron introduced the magnesium flash method of illuminating stage scenes for photography, Falk surrendered the field to him, since the death of Sarony had swelled his portrait work to scarcely manageable proportions.
Once Falk committed to electrification, he embraced it wholeheartedly: "In this studio all enlarging work is done with electric lights, both negatives and paper. Our main photographing room contains a 'bank' made up of sever Cooper-Hewitt tubes with eight groups of Mazdas. We find this combination as adequate on dark days as daylight. Though most of our printing is done with daylight, we have found the Cooper-Hewitt invaluable for fast work, particularly in an emergency." When his attention turned to color portraiture in the 1910s, he required greater intensity of illumination, so worked with flash rigs of his own design.
Falk earned the undying regard of professional photographers in 1897 when he organized the Photographers’ Copyright League. This association of photographers responded to attempts by periodical publishers to use photographic images in newspapers and magazines without remuneration and to fight efforts to legislate away the property rights of photographers in their creations. Falk organized the association, served as its original president, and then served for the next twenty years as an ex-officio.
Falk’s contemporaries, who spoke primarily of the clarity, verisimilitude, and composure of his images, never recognized his greatest power as a portraitist. Falk was a man of extraordinary erotic engagement with his sitters, and the intensity of his attention becomes visible only when one sees the entirety of his work envisioning one of the several women—Belle Archer, Mrs. James Brown Potter, Cleo DeMerode, CissyFitzgerald, Amy Busby, the Barrison Sisters—who capture his imagination. He was capable of refracting the sitter’s beauty in a tremendous array of scenes, costumes, and attitudes, doing so without making the images seem artificial.
When asked in 1893 what was most important in creating effective portraits, he replied matter of factly, "I name expression, posing and lighting in the order as they appear to be most important. The technique of the profession being absolutely under the control of the operator since the introduction of the dry plates, there is no excuse now for any but perfect photographic results. I have always made my price high enough, so that I did not have to consider the cost of material while doing my work." The camera, in the proper hands, is, in many ways, a finer art tool to-day than the chisel or the brush, although, like them, it has its limitations.
When Theatre Magazine began publication in 1900, its first illustrations were supplied by Falk. On the magazine’s 25th anniversary, shortly before Falk’s death, they named him as the oldest of Greatest Theatrical Photographers of the 20th century.
NOTES: American Journal of Photography 15 (1894), 345. Waldorf Ad, The Era 11 (1903), 632. “Falk’s electric illumination,” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine vol 37 (1900), 100. The Edison Monthly 6 (1913), 44-45. Russian Honeymoon, Photographic Times and American Photographer vol 13 (1883), 297. Interview, The Photographic Journal of America vol 31 (1893), 422-23. David S. Shields/ALS
The first strong adherent of artificial light sources in the studio, Benjamin Falk created portraits that were among the most dramatically sculptural looking images of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Possessed of a playful visual wit, he often experimented with his images, using curious juxtapositions, unusual poses, and lighting highlights to convey distinctiveness of personality. Increasingly indifferent to painted backdrops, he did many portraits against blank walls or bleached out backcloths. He began the fashion for faces and figures suspended in a milky white ground that became ubiquitous shortly after 1900.