Descendent of one of the first families of Virginia, Ira Hill was born and educated in Chicago. He moved to New York to attend college and stayed after graduation. In 1904 he partnered with Louis de Silva, son of New Haven's foremost portrait photographer, to form De Silva & Hill Studio. From the first the Studio sought to place images of beautiful women in magazines as illustrations. A suite of images in Hampton magazine initiated this campaign to build their brand. Hill proved the more adept of the partners in negotiating with editors. After two and a half years conjoined, Hill broke with the business in 1907 opened his portrait studio at 403 5th Avenue in Manhattan specializing in "the Gibson Head." By placing his portraits with Town & Country magazine in 1910, he established himself as the most fashionable Society Photographer in New York City, and slowly took the Blue Blood trade from Marceau Studio and Pach Brothers despite not being listed in the social register.
Success did not bring out the admirable traits in Hill's character. American newspapers featured details of his lurid 1911 divorce from Estelle Baker Hill bearing headlines such as, "Boasted of His Love Affairs, So Wife Declared" and "She Needn't Be Jealous, for there was Not One But Many." The stories suggested a life in which Hill squired several metropolitan beauties around town in his motor car, with particular attentiveness to a "Mrs. Gordon." This 1911 breakup presaged a series of domestic difficulties over the course of his life.
If turning Society women into Gibson Heads established his reputation, Hill knew he had to diversify his client base. The Society trade would be his bread and butter (during Hill's 40 year career, he had more portraits appear in the Society Pages of the New York Times than any contemporary studio) but he quickly exploited his entree with magazine editors by approaching clothing retailers, becoming one of the first generation of fashion photographers.
In the 1910s, because of the popularization of the theater among younger members of the upper crust by Alice Lewisohn, High Society would became involved with Broadway. In 1914 Hill, taking Society's cue, began generating luxurious theatrical publicity portraits, particularly of actresses. When Baron Adolph De Meyer created a rage for luxurious country house interior settings in his photographs for Vanity Fair, Hill, who was published in the same magazine, borrowed the concept and made a series of brightly lit portraits of sinuously posed actresses lounging on the window seats of country estates. These became defining images of celebrity allure during the First World War, imitated by George Moffett and Campbell Studios.
Hill was the most important theatrical portraitist from 1913 to 1917, and a significant portraitist from 1917 to 1924, yet his aesthetic interests increasingly fixed on fashion. In full-figure images--which supplanted the Gibson Head in his posing in 1912--dress mattered as much as personality. While the attitudes of dancers--particularly Vernon and Irene Castle, and Anna Pavlova--might cause him to consider the expressive potentials of pose, with other performers the arrangement of the sitter often maximized the beauty of a gown or ensemble. A friend of designer Lady Duff Gordon, he shot many of the dresses she produced as "Lucille." For a period of time from 1917-1920 he dominated the fashion pages of Theatre magazine. In the early 1920s, the spheres of fashion, theater, and Society coincided to a degree and he defined much of the look of their conjuncture.
Divorce from his second wife, actress Katheryn Carver, in 1928 soured Hill on the world of entertainment generally and made him turn away from Broadway portraiture. Working out of a new studio at 677 5th St., Hill became a mobile chronicler of winter balls and summer fetes, June weddings and autumn cruises. In the 1930s, he ceased doing the shutter work at his studio, leaving it to hired talent.
Hill's character was paradoxical. With his clientele he manifested a refined patrician charm, with his family, an irritable temper that grew stranger as his wealth increased. His third wife, Doris Godwin Hill (great grandniece of President Zachary Taylor), tolerated him until June 1938. Doris matched the photographer in guile and malice, obtaining through a legal finesse his estate in Connecticut. Arrested in 1939 for a fight with Doris's retainers, Hill's personality became volatile. He married again, renounced his only son in a fit of temper, and at the time of the October 1946 car accident that would lead eventually to his death, had separated from his fourth wife. He left his estate of $50,000 to two teen-aged granddaughters.
Ira L. Hill studio remained a viable brand after its founder’s death in January 1947, under the direction of Raymond K. Martin. It maintaining its grip on the Blue Book wedding market until 1968.
NOTES: Lady Duff Gordon, "Stage Dresses," Washington Post (Aug 13, 1916), MT6. "Hill Will Take New Bride Soon," Los Angeles Times (May 7, 1928), 1. "Ira Hill Held in Fight at Home of Ex-Wife," NYT (Nov 21, 1939), 12. "Ira L. Hill, 70, Noted as Photographer," NYT (Jan 21, 1947), 24. "Granddaughters get Estate of Ira L. Hill," NYT (Jul 29, 1947), 23. "Boasted of His Love Affairs," The New Advocate (Jun 24, 1911), 8. David S. Shields/ALS
Hill's early success had to do with the rustic painted backdrops employed in his studio shots. Using soft focus, he made a sitter appear as though lounging in a Gainsborough glade. Theater producers were attracted to the aesthetic aura of his portraits and in 1913 began sending actresses for publicity shots to his studio, then located at 463 6th Avenue. After 1915 the influence of Baron De Meyer caused Hill to design the ensemble of his shots with more exquisite taste and with fashionable dress and furnishings. He rarely shot performers in character, and devoted himself increasingly to fashion work and society portraiture in the 1920s.