Edward Thayer Monroe was born in Jamestown, New York, in 1890, into a family of photographers. His grandfather, Myron C. Monroe, pioneered wet-plate photography, recording Civil War scenes and shooting the first American images of Jenny Lind for P.T. Barnum. E.T. Monroe turned down the opportunity to attend Yale University, choosing a technical education instead. He received extensive practical training at a photographic processing plant in Syracuse and opened a home studio. In October 1914, the Dinturff Company of Syracuse hired him as "artistic portrait photographer" and his prints began circulating among magazine editors in the Northeast.
In 1915, Luther White hired Monroe to become chief portrait photographer for White Studios in New York City. He headed the portrait department from 1915 through 1919. In 1920, he set up as an independent artist, following the lead of A.C. Johnston and Nickolas Muray. From the first, Monroe garnered notice for the clarity and precision of his images, quickly earning a reputation as the most elegant of the straight photographers. He made his first sales of theater portraits to the magazines in 1919. By 1923 Vanity Fair listed him among the 10 most significant portraitists of the day. He worked as contract photographer for The Theatre in the later 1920s. The Depression forced him into bankruptcy. He reorganized, and in 1939 teamed with his former colleague at White Studio, George W. Lucas, to form Lucas-Monroe, one of the important firms (with Vandamm & Valente) concerned with production photography.
With Lucas's death in 1942, Monroe managed the business until 1952, while residing in the Hudson Valley. In 1952, he retired to upstate New York, amused himself as a local studio photographer, then moved to New England. He died in Starksboro, Vermont, in 1974 and was survived by two daughters. David S. Shields/ALS
Monroe's years of uncredited work as a portraitist at the busiest studio in New York City from 1914 to 1919 instilled in him a mastery of natural lighting and photographic printing. Because White Studios' production photographs, shot by George W. Lucas, highlighted the glitzy spectacle of the stage, Monroe, when shooting performers out of character cultivated an almost austere naturalness of pose and setting. He was a neoclassicist in sensibility, avoiding dramatic contrasts in tone in his prints by avoiding spot lighting and heavy dodging of the prints. He used an 8x10 camera with a 12 inch lens. He experimented with textured papers for his prints and his finest work shows exquisite finish.
The typical Monroe portrait shows a sitter at rest, composed and self-possessed, whether sitting or standing. In the mid-1920s he shot nudes of showgirls that have the stillness and poise of Greek statuary. He avoided reclining postures. His portraits for White occasionally employed soft focus. Those appearing under his own name tend to be straight, well-lit, with moderate depth of field.