Trained as a news photographer for News-Mix in the 1920s, John "Jack" O'Reilly was the first important theatrical photographer to learn his craft on a portable Graflex camera. His journalistic background made the narrative element of an image preeminently important. The other penchant he acquired was an improvisatory eye.
In the early 1930s he partnered with businessman James E. Gray to form Gray-O'Reilly Studio, a diversified image production firm under whose credit line O'Reilly's work typically appeared. The studio became, with Alfredo Valente, the house photographers for Stage Magazine in the 1930s. While Valente did neo-classic style portraiture and well-composed stage pictures, often in small format, O'Reilly savored odd angled production shots with edgy shadowing. There was no professional photographer in New York in the 1930s quicker for image turnaround. He developed his own images and was greatly concerned with producing dark tones that leant themselves to mass reproduction.
His perpetual striving for impact in an image made him attractive to advertising agencies. By 1940 half of the studio's business was ad work. His greatest talent may have been in creating unusual lighting effects, igniting banks of flash bulbs at once, or doing long exposure dark shots. In the later 1940s, with the birth of television, Gray-O'Reilly did some of the earliest commercials. O'Reilly's skill impressed the early TV executives, and he became one of the more active television film producers, maintaining a career into the early 1970s. David S. Shields/ALS
Master of the candid image, the experimental stage production image, and the eye-catching scenic mood piece, O'Reilly was the foil to Tommy Vandamm and Alfredo Valente, photographers known for the careful setup of images. Often editorial rather than reportorial in his presentation of scenes, he eschewed absolute clarity in his prints.