One of the greatest creators of stage pictures in the history of American theatrical photography, Eileen Darby chronicled the extraordinarily rich world of Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, her images are so central to the visualization of that era in cultural memory that it could be argued that without Darby's work, we could not recapture the visual culture of the post-war theatrical blossoming.
A native of Portland, she was a teenage swimming star, and her father's photographs of her racing form, which together they developed and studied initiated her into the art of photography. While enrolled as an undergraduate and Marylhurst College, she decided in 1937 to venture to New York and make her way as a photographer. The Pix Agency, a diversified image company, hired her. The agency immediately began sending her as first-call camera on theatrical assignments, since players and producers were used to women camera artists, such as Florence Vandamm, photographing them. Carrying a rolleiflex camera hung around her neck, she became a ubiquitous presence in New York theaters. One of her fellow cameramen at Pix, Alfred Eisenstaedt, recommended her work to the editors of Life magazine, and she began to work as a contract photographer. She made her name with a set of candid shots, published in Life's July 21 issue, of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia getting excited at a Yankees baseball game.
In 1941 Darby left Pix to form Graphic House, a company originally as much concerned with the processing of film as the generation of images. Darby had refined darkroom skills and became the favorite developer for photo-journalists who needed quick turn around and wanted control over images being submitted to editors. At a time when photographers, including theatrical photographers, were experimenting with color photography, Darby made a decision to use only black & white film for interior work, and color for exterior work. In 1944 she married Roy Lester who would run the business side of Graphic House until his death in 1976. They had two children, and the advent of the second child was photographically chronicled in Life magazine.
Darby became the photographer most sought by theatrical producers in the wake of her suite of photographs for two landmark productions of the late 1940s: "The Death of a Salesman" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." In both sets of images, she took several pictures at intimate distances, along with the usual mid-distance stage panoramas. The effects were riveting. Eileen Darby provided Life with substantial amounts of exclusive material, but Graphic House was just as often brought in by the producers to supply publicity and program shots. Her fame as a photographer grew to such an extent that editors would underwrite the cost of transatlantic journeys or transcontinental jaunts if a production promised to become a major theatrical event.
In the mid-1960s she began to cut back on her assignment load, and she ceased photographing entirely upon the death of her husband in 1976.
Her family has consolidated her archive and currently offers reproductions at http://eileendarby.com/. Of particular interest is a series of photographs documenting a day in the working life of the photographer.
NOTES:"Bypath Biographies: Eileen Darby," Oregonian (Jun 23, 1946), 52. Obituary: Douglas Martin, "Eileen Darby, 87, Photographer of Noted Broadway Shows" (April 13, 2004). Mary C. Henderson, Stars on Stage: Eileen Darby and Broadway's Golden Age (Bulfinch, 2005). David S. Shields/ALS
While Darby portrayed performers in costume as characters, she declined to do other sorts of photography usual in publicity: fashion shoots, performers at home scenes, or portraiture out of character. Her preference for stage production stills marked her adherence to the aesthetic principles of photojournalism. Another feature of her professional approach was to avoid extensive retouching of negatives. Her usual method was to compose in the viewfinder, adjust lighting to an extent that the image was sufficiently illuminated to be informative, and take her shot. Because she was particularly interested in the work of scenic designers, she would choose vantage points with extreme care, in the hope of showing the ingenuity of stage setups to optimum effect.
And while history recalls Darby as the visual recorder of the American stage, she was also a talented photographic essayist. Her Life essay on a day at Coney Island is one of the great evocations of everyday entertainment in mid-20th century America.
Periodically, she also spoke on the art of photography. In the 1952 handbook, "Rollei Photography," Darby discussed the issues involved in photographing animals.