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James E. Purdy

Time Period: 
1896-1928
Location: 
Boston
Biography: 

(1859-1933)

In 1907 the cultural critic Benjamin Orange Flower in an essay on "Photography: Its True Function and its Limitations" identified James E. Purdy as one of the major "legitimate" photographers in the United States: "The famous Boston photographic artist, who has undoubtedly taken more portraits of really distinguished statesmen, authors, educators, artists, clergymen, diplomats, journalists and persons eminent in various professions than any photographer in New England." Missing from the roll call of worthies were stage performers, but Purdy photographed them too. Yet Flower characterized Purdy's metier truly: he was a celebrity photographer of that tradition that extended from Jeremiah Gurney to Yousuf Karsh, not a theatrical photographer such as Boston's Elmer Chickering.

Purdy's presumption was that individuals possessed a monolithic character, and that the task of a portraitist was to record it truthfully. The polymorphous personifications of performers ran counter to his understanding of the nature of humanity. Indeed in the entire corpus of his theatrical portraiture, we see him engaged in the exploration of multiplicities of seeming with only two sitters: the Boston actress and model Lillian Lawrence and the young Maude Fealy. Even so, it remains an open question whether these suites of images are by Purdy or were taken by his "superintendent" W. John Searle, who was his chief operator from 1896 to 1904 before setting up his own studio in Everett, Massachusetts.

A native of Saco, Maine, Purdy began his photographic life in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Purdy established his Boston studio at 146 Tremont Street in 1896 in partnership with C.H. Howard who ran the business side of the operation. In 1900 Purdy determined that sales of celebrity images to newspaper and magazine editors was essential to his business, and that he had to develop his printing department substantially. Purdy worked with silver bromide, carbon, and platinum papers so the client had a choice of dramatic shades (carbon), sparkle (silver), or subtle intermediate tone (platinum). One of Purdy's great insights was that high schools might prove a more lucrative market than colleges for photography; his studio monopolized the greater Boston area school market for much of the early 20th century.

Purdy's son, Stanley Blanchard Purdy, after schooling at M.I.T. and Harvard University, served as his chief assistant after 1908, gradually taking over the brand name which remained viable for much of the 20th century.

NOTES: B. O. Flower, "Photography: Its Function and its Liimitations," Arena 37 (1907), 129-41. Obituary, Boston Herald (Aug 3, 1933). David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Purdy allied himself with the truth in likeness camp of portraiture against the pictorialist and those who sought to use other graphic arts to alter pictures away from verisimilitude: "I consider the real or true function of photography to be to record and pubish the truth. Now the mission of the new school seems to be in great measure to conceal the truth: to hide, cover up or eliminate facts rather than to present them in a striking and realistic manner. My idea is that we cannot have too much of the truth, provided it is presented in its proper and legitimate way. . . . the painter and the photographic artist has each his distinct the legitimate field. It is as absurd as it is ideal to talk of photography supplanting painting."