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G. Maillard Kesslere

Time Period: 
1921-1952
Location: 
11 W. 46th St.; 44 E. 50th St., Manhattan
Biography: 

(1894-1979)

A graduate of Syracuse University, George Maillard Kesslere was one of the last students of American impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase. Upon graduation, he established a portrait studio in Syracuse, New York, in which he practiced both photography and painting. He also collaborated on several mural projects. Though his camera work won immediate recognition for its artistry, Kesslere could never support himself with his lens since the maximum the market could bear was $150 per dozen prints. So in 1921 when The Debutante, a New York periodical catering to "the four hundred," invited him to become art editor, Kesslere lept at the chance, moving to New York City in August 1921. For a brief period he maintained both workplaces, but his success as a photographer in New York caused him to shutter the Syracuse studio in 1922.

Debutante evaporated, but a set of portraits of Dorothy Dickson published in Vanity Fair cemented his reputating as a talented camera artist and won him a city clientele. An aesthete, snob, bisexual libertine, and party-giver, he became an important figure in consolidating the cultural connections between the homosexual arts community and high society in the period between the wars. Noticing the vogue in the cultural magazines for hazy photographs of nude dancers, Kesslere in 1923 began developing a series of paintings and pastels of diaphonously draped nude girls running in the open air. This arty sort of pin-up painting attracted the attention of Broadway flesh merchant, Earl Carroll who installed Kesslere as his official photographer after the death of John De Mirjian in 1928. The programs for Carroll's "Vanities" series featured paintings and photos by Kesslere, and an effusive appreciation of his art by some cultural luminary of the day.

In the world of theatrical photography, Kesslere's fame did not rest on representations of the body, so much as his evocative and experimental treatments of the head. He was one of the finest of the bust format photographers of the late 1920s and 1930s. He excelled in the atmospheric, painterly treatment of the backgrounds of these bust shots. For his portraiture he was awarded recognition by the British Royal Academy of Photography, so appended B.P. to his signature in later life. On March 26, 1935, Kesslere exhibited 500 of his photographs, paintings, drawings, and etchings in the Patricia Lounge of Loew's Ziegfeld Theater. In the catalogue for the show, the titles were misnumbered causing humorous juxtapositions that provoked much mirth in the press.

In the 1930s, Kesslere became involved in book projects, such as the 1936 illustrated Personalities of Radio. On July 1, 1947, a traveling exhibition of Kesslere’s work, "Stars of Yesterday and Today," toured the United States under the sponsorship of the Theatre Library Association. In April 1952, Kesslere donated 6,000 photographs and 500 paintings to the Theater Collection of the New York Public Library. Kesslere's studio, however, caught fire shortly before transfer of the images, and many of the items that were saved and transferred to the NYPL collection suffer from water damage and rough handling. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Kesslere devoted his photographic art to theatrical portraiture and fashion. Trained as a painter, he pursued a parallel career as a fine artist, excelling in pastels. From the first he exemplified the painterly, anti-Hollywood approach of the Kansas City photographers and the New York negative scrapers. He renovated and modernized the late 19th-century style of vignette photography in which a portrait bust would float disembodied in pictorial space coalescing out of a drawn rendering of the sitter. The success of these mixed media portraits led others, such as Hal Phyfe, John De Mirjian, and even Irving Chidnoff, to experiment with the style, leading to a moment in 1926-27 when a distinct New York style of art portraiture prevailed. Even in the later 1930s, when a straight style of depiction became standard, Kesslere's images were so heavily retouched that they seemed graphic rather than photographic.