Great-grandson of Duncan Phyfe, the iconic furniture designer of the early republic, Herold Rodney Eaton "Hal" Phyfe was born in Nice, France, to a New York society family. Trained as a sculptor in France and a painter in Italy, Hal Phyfe began pursuing photography an an enlistee in World War I documenting an aviation unit of the U.S. Army in Europe. He made a specialty of aerial photography. After the war he supported himself as an illustrator supplying magazines with covers rendered in pastels. He opened his photography studio in 1926.
During the 1920s he built a reputation for his theatrical portraiture (sketches and photographs) shot on commission for various magazines. He became the principal photographer for Florenz Ziegfeld during 1930-31. He became famous for his dictum that no smiles were allowed during sittings. During the late 1920s he owned a dog who became something of a Broadway celebrity. Legend holds that he turned down a remunerative long-term contract with a magazine in the wake of his dog's death, which disabled him from talking business. During the early 1930s he habitually wore a black tie in mourning. His melancholy was somewhat tempered when bootlegger Owney Madden entrusted his red tabby cat to Phyfe's keeping when he was put away in Sing Sing. Phyfe's notorious eccentricity of dress extended to wearing moccasins instead of shoes and dressing down in denim at debutante balls during that period when he was official photographer to High Society.
He was one of the best amateur cooks in Manhattan, with recipes appearing in papers as far away as Los Angeles. In 1931 he was hired on a three month contract by Fox. He went to Hollywood and was besieged for portrait sittings. He preferred the social life of New York, so he returned to New York and resumed a career as one of the central society and theater photographers in the city. A sociable man, he was invariably on the committees for the beaux arts balls in the 1930s, or serving as judge in various charity photo contests. In June 1950 he leased a penthouse in the Parke-Bernet Galleries at 980-990 Madison Avenue for his studio.
As adept at portraying men as women, Phyfe produced some of the most dynamic male portraits of the late 1920s. He preferred not to portray performers in costume. A master of middle grays, his exhibition and portfolio prints of the late 1920s display exquisitely refined shading. During the late 1920s he indulged in the penchant among New York portraitists to vignette heads. There would be strong graphic intervention at the perimeters of the image, suggesting a drawing. In the 1930s he opted for a straighter style of portraiture, full body, often with the subject seated. His Society portraits of the 1930s are well posed and understated, suggesting refinement rather than ostentation. His popularity among Hollywood performers derives from his disinclination to overstate elegance. He signed original prints in red crayon in distinctive squared letters. His Hollywood portraits are signed on the negative in white.
Periodically Phyfe published advice about how women should prepare for a photo shoot. "1. A clean face, with a dusting of fine rachel powder. 2. No foundation cream of grease beneath the powder. 3. A light lipstick--red photographs black--but an indelible one. Shape the lips in their usual lines, rub in the lip rouge, press the lips against a facial tissue to remove every speck of excessive rouge. 4. Very little mascara, and what you use concentrated on the tips of the lashes to accent their length. Artificial eyelashes are fine if they are the kind which are applied at the end of each natural lash, and not the fringe strip type which drap the eyelids down out of shape. 5. Natural eyebrows--of course yours are habitually disciplined to a clean, well grooomed line, camera sitting or no!--unless you are a very pale blonde, when a teeny bit of mascara may be used. The lens, however, will catch considerable accent from even blonde eyebrows. 6. No greasy highlights. Let the photographer add them if he wishes, about the eyelids. 7. A little dry eye shadow discreetly applied. 8. Choose a natural, simple and familiar hairdo, certainly one which will not date you. Your dress should be a pastel shade with a neckline which does not chop your head from your body, and it better not be of print fabric. The effect may detract from your face, confuse the issue. Too, print designs tend to date you, as do hats and strange hairdos." (Jan 1940)
"Facial construction must be definite, even bold. And the eyes must be the pivot of the expression. For if the eyes have "it" everything else will be forgotten in their vivid, compelling attraction. Eyes create individuality, they are the spokesman for the soul, the character, the mind. For the rest--complexion, hair, features--for he knows that art and the will to achieve a certain amount of beauty can, and does do wonders." (Jun 1930) David S. Shields/ALS