William Edward Elcha (1885-1939)
Edward Elcha, the foremost African-American chronicler of Broadway, proprietor of Progress Studio, and a resonant portraitist of the musical world of Harlem in the 1920s and ‘30s, was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father William was a waiter at the Haynes Hotel. His mother Cornelia A. Vandall was an accomplished painter. He apprenticed with photographer George Van Norman of Springfield, receiving extensive training in the graphic manipulation of the negative as well as standard instruction in darkroom chemistry and posing. He set up his own studio in Springfield at 154 Hancock Street which he ran from 1913 until early 1915. He was a complete technician when Gretta Greer Dupont hired him as an operator for Aime Dupont Studio, one of the premier performing arts portrait houses in Manhattan. He worked for Dupont from 1915 to 1917 until recruited by Bachrach Studio during World War 1. Elcha signed on with Strand Studio 1918, presumably because that studio offered him name credit. His images from 1919 bear the Elké STRAND signature scribed into the negative.
The inability of Strand to secure bookings for high end shows apparently irked Elcha. In 1920 he left, joined in a partnership with J. Montanya, and founded a business “Catering especially to those performers who love Portraits of Refinement” at 230 West 135th Street in Manhattan. . He realized he needed a strategy to survive as a photographer in a city filled with studios vying for stage publicity commissions and the society trade. The burgeoning African American press would supply him steady employment in addition to his portrait and stage production work. He signed on as staff photographer of the New York office of the Pittsburgh Courier.
Elcha’s first efforts as an independent operator failed and he returned to Strand. Images from 1920 and 1921 bore his own name—Elcha, NY—. After a second stint at Strand in 1922-23 he went independent a second time branding his business Progress Studios. His premises on 220-25 W. 46th became a way station of the African American elite on their visits to New York City. The Navex building in which the studio was located also housed a black dance company, African American music publishers, and the headquarters of the Luckeyeth Roberts jazz orchestra.
Elcha became the black chronicler of Jazz Age Manhattan—its musicians, stage shows, and social gatherings. His placements in the Saturday Evening Post, the Philadelphia Evening Post, and the New York Morning Telegraph in the early 1920s signaled that he had come to be regarded as a professional talent in the eyes of national editors.
Elcha’s involvement in the artistic life of Manhattan grew more rich as the 1920s. His wife Mary Elcha, a jazz singer, became the “star songbird” of the Checker Club. He himself appeared in cameos in the black revues and was granted membership in the Negro Actors Guild. But aside from his photography, Elcha won most renowned for his paintings. Indeed, the New York Society for the Supression of Vice in 1930 closed down a show of Echla’s nudes at a gallery on 125th Street, because they regarded “Sleeping Venus,” “Springtime” and “Annunciation” as too candid in their presentation of flesh. Judge Simpson viewed the paintings, declared them masterful, and reopened the exhibition.
By the late 1920s Elcha’s reputation was so well established that white performers availed themselves of his services in large numbers. He experimented with color photography, making 3 feet by 4 feet lobby images of Eva Tanguay and others. When Jack Goldberg and Joseph J. Myers hired Elcha in summer 1928 as the exclusive photographer of the Majestic Theatrical Circuit, a national booking agency for black talent, he formalized his dominant position as the recorder of the African-American entertainment world. A condition of the contract was the the Circuit purchase new German lenses and cameras for Elcha. From 1929 until his sudden death by a heart attack on November 3, 1939 Progress Studio was a state of the art photographic enterprise.
Sources: “Elcha’s Work Known from Coast to Coast,” Pittsburgh Courier (June 7, 1924), 1. “Courier Reporter Surveys Broadway,” Pittsburgh Courier (February 4, 1928), 1. “Calvin’s Diary of the New York Show World,” Pittsburgh Courier (July 10, 1926), 9. Chappy Gardner, “Nude Paintings of Race Photog Leads to Raid by ‘Simon Pures’” Pittsburgh Courier (April 12, 1930), 1. [Elcha opens Progress Studios blurb], Pittsburgh Courier (September 15, 1923), 11. [Advertisement of Elcha Montanya Partnership], Billboard (November 20, 1920), 13. "Majestic Circuit gets Photo Artist," Pittsburgh Courier (August 18, 1928), A2. David S. Shields