London-born Florence Vandamm (1883-1966) was from 1925 to 1950 the photographer of record for Broadway. Trained as a fine artist at the Royal Academy, she first employed photography as an adjunct to portrait painting. Her talent with the camera outstripped her abilities with the brush. In 1908 she opened a photographic studio in London's West End that enjoyed steady patronage. In 1918, Vandamm married George R. Thomas, an American engineer, who under his wife's tutelage took up photography. The English financial depression of 1923 drove the couple to New York where Florence Vandamm secured magazine work.
Francis Bruguiere, the contract photographer for the Theater Guild, in 1924 became increasingly absorbed in personal artistic experiments and erratic in the performance of his duties. Vandamm Studio was hired as a back-up. George, known as "Tommy Vandamm" and Florence proved reliable, untemperamental, and artistic. They soon supplanted Bruguiere. Their reputation for efficiency spread up and down Broadway. Tommy had a particularly unobtrusive way of handling stage pictures that won the attention of the Schubert organization. He performed location work while Florence did publicity portraits in the W. 57th Street studio.
By the end of 1925 Vandamm Studio had surpassed White Studio as the first call photographic service for stage productions in New York. Known for tireless industry and their willingness to work late hours, they increased the volume of their work as various studios collapsed under the Depression. In October 1937, The City Museum of New York mounted an exhibition, "New York Theatre Productions as Photographed by Vandaam, 1923-37," featuring images from fifty-six plays and musicals culled from the 50,000 negatives then stored in the studio.
Tommy died in 1944. Florence took over the task of production shooting and worked a round-the-clock schedule. The majority of the portraits, taken in costume, took place after an evening's performance. Many of the city legends of mid-century Broadway had to do with the adventures of performers traversing New York in costume at midnight to reach Vandamm studios. Florence Vandamm retired in 1950 having photographed in excess of 2,000 theatrical productions. In 1961 the New York Public Library purchased the studio's photographic archive, which forms one of the lynchpins of the Theater collection. David S. Shields/ALS
Florence Vandamm specialized in portraits of theatrical performers in costume, whether in modern fashion or historical dress. A traditionalist when it came to posing, she preferred to present sitters in formal poses in richly shadowed settings. A straight photographer, she declined to manipulate the negative beyond retouching of blemishes and refining skin tone. There was a seriousness to her images that suited the sobriety of the country during the 1930s.
Tommy Vandamm's production shots were usually taken after the final dress rehearsal of a production. His shots were noteworthy for the clarity with which they showed the focus of stage action. In the later 1930s and 1940s he had the stage managers up the lighting level of the stages during shooting to confine the tonal range of the images. When Florence took over production shooting from 1944 to 1950, she reverted to the chiaroscuro lighting of the 1930s.
From 1930 to 1950 Vandamm Studio chronicled over 2,000 productions. In their latter years the couple's instinct for what would work on stage became legendary. A frown from Tommy Vandamm foretold dire things, and a smile from Florence was surity of success.