A refugee and artist, Jose Maria Mora belonged to one of the wealthiest of the planter families of colonial Cuba. He was studying painting in Paris when the Cuban uprising of 1868 forced the exodus of his family to New York City and occasioned confiscation of their property on the island. He left off his studies, joined his family, and immediately sought employment with the most artistic of the New York photographic studios, the newly organized Sarony & Company where he produced painted photographs. Though his time in Sarony’s employ was short—two years maximum—he absorbed several important lessons of the master. He realized that retouching enhanced the beauty of faces, so he mastered the art. Mora saw that the employment of appropriate backdrops, particularly for costumed sitters, greatly increased the sense of theatrical integrity of an image. Finally, he learned that a multiplicity of headdresses, hats, ornaments, scarves, and necklaces worked to create visual interest when series of images were being generated of a single viewer. Upon becoming independent, he immediately hired Lafayette W. Seavey, Sarony’s background painter, to produce unique images for his use.
Mora's artistic training gave him advantages over most of his rivals when creating images that evoked imaginary landscapes peopled by superlative creatures. The painterly tradition of posing had been thoroughly internalized. The visual languages of the sublime, the picturesque, and the domestic were familiar and easily deployed. He could control deep shadow, the gradual modulation of shade to create modeling, and the dispersion of light sources. He was more interested in the female body as a challenge for photographic representation than any photographer of his day, and reached his greatest artistry in full figure studies.
Because Mora knew intimately Sarony’s methods and ambitions, he proved the foremost rival in the business of portraying celebrities. During the 1870s and '80s they competed monetarily to secure the exclusive right to photograph visiting actresses and singers from Europe. Sarony's deeper pocketbook forced Mora to engage in new strategies of competition, the most influential of which was the photographic creation of celebrities from photogenic women with marginal histrionic talent—Maude Branscombe, Vennie Clancey, and Adelaide Cherie. His second initiative was to supply a greater variety of backgrounds than any other photographer in the world. In 1877, while visiting the studio at 707 that Mora had taken over from Benjamin Gurney, "Professor Greene" observed, "we find an unusual number of backgrounds in use, the custom being to introduce from to two or more new ones monthly. They are stretched on frames, one on each side. These frames have no permanent feet, and are hung, when not in use, side by side to hooks in the ceiling near the south wall of the operating room. About twenty backgrounds are thus arranged, and a moment or two suffices to take one down, attach portable feet, and place in position. A great variety of exterior and interior scenes affords an opportunity for the artist to select a background in accordance with the style of dress and social standing of the subject. A new feature at this establishment is a series of eight backgrounds, each five feet by six feet, for the various positions of light and shade desirable in head and bust pictures. Out-door and in-door accessories, real and imitation, are highly esteemed by the proprieter." These accessories included paper mache stone balconies, rustic wooden benches, carved balustrades, a leaded Tudor window, a wooden row boat, and a large assortment of artificial rocks.
Throughout the 1870s, Mora did not exhibit in the conventions of the professional photographers. In the 1880s Lafayette Seavey, the supplier of most of his painted backdrops, convinced him to permit his portraits to appear as a component of Seavey's elaborate displays at the exhibitions. Indeed the connection between Mora and Seavey grew so intimate that the painter advertised certain of his standard offerings by Mora's name: "No. 66 Mora Cabinet, a popular design, per square ft, $30 . . . No. 70. Mora Interior, for full and three-quarter lengths, per square ft, $30 . . . No. 21 Mora Sea View, adapted for head and vignette, as well as full lengths, per square feet." Mora may have provided prototype sketches for these backgrounds. While Sarony, C.D. Fredricks, and Henry Rocher had views associated with them, none had so many as Mora.
The superlative quality of Mora's images depended upon a talented staff, particularly his retoucher Mr. Costa. This ingenious craftsmen in the 1870s devised a photographic display box two and a half feet square illuminated by shielded gas jet that enabled viewers to impose a variety of floral and other foregrounds on images to visualize different configurations of sitter and setting. The mechanism could also project pictures onto a wall for better inspection. A.H. Atwood headed the printing department during the 1870s. When going independent in 1881, he opened a studio next door to Sarony's that remained in business for five years. Mora's assistant in the darkroom, J.J. Montgomery, was a chemistry savant, peddling his own brand of "portrait collodion" during the wet plate era. He left Mora to work with Atwood, andover the course of the 1880s developed a reputation as a landscape photographer of note. J.F. Coonley was the optical technician on the staff, testing lenses and illumination devices. Atwood would also become interested in arc illumination, opening the "A.H. Atwood Electric & Manufacturing Company" manufacturing lamps in the early 1890s. These technicians became the moving force behind the organization of the "Association of Operative Photographers" in New York in 1879.
One of Mora's great concerns in the 1880s was the means of projecting photographic imagery into mass circulation magazines. He made arrangements with Harper’s, The Police Gazette, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated to supply images for engraving.
Mora's mental health began declining in the late 1880s, provoked by the uncertainties surrounding the settling of the Mora familial claims against Spain. In February 1886, for instance, a false rumor spread through the city that a ten million dollar indemnity was being paid by the Spanish government to the Mora family, causing a run on his studio. In 1887 Mora's business began to fail. In the following year he attributed the collapse of his enterprise to too great an emphasis on theatrical portraiture; his own distraction appears to have contributed materially. The next several years were consumed in continual litigation and frustrations at securing settlement of his family's claims. The death of sugar planter Jose M. Mora in Brazil in 1892 and the contest over his estate especially agitated the long-stewing diplomatic agitation over the Mora properties. The photographer Jose Maria Mora, Albert Mora of Paris, and Isabella M. Mora were the chief claimants for 3/4s of a million dollars at issue with the death of Jose M. And yet, when the Spanish government finally settled in 1895, the bulk of the money went to another branch of the Mora family. Mora subsequently sold his stock of photographs in 1888 to Charles L. Ritzman and shut 707 Broadway.
For the next seven years Mora was involved in the litigation surrounding the Mora family claims. In 1895 he received an insultingly small portion of the wealth taken by Spain from his family—a little over $200,000. He deposited it an a bank, retreated to the Hotel Breslin and became a recluse subsisting on pies and cakes donated by guests. When he died on October 28, 1926, the hotel management discovered the walls of his apartment papered with images of celebrities of the 1880s. His bathrub was filled with yellowed thatrical programs. $200,000 remained untouched in his bank account.
NOTES: "The Trade in Photographic Materials and Pictures," The American Bookseller vol 14.19 (Oct 1, 1883), 757. "Photographic Manipulation Assisted by 'Artistic Retouching'," The British Journal of Photography (Sep 10, 1880), 437-38. Professor Greene, "Can Photography Make Pictures?" The Photographic News 21 (May 25, 1877), 244. "Mr. Costa," The Photographic Times vol 9.101 (Nov 1879), 259. "Mora said to be in Luck," New York Herald-Tribune (Feb 12 1886), 3. "About the Stage and Its People," New York Herald-Tribune, (Dec 12, 1888), 7. David S. Shields/ALS
Mora was the most tactful and poetic of the late 19th-century theatrical and celebrity photographers in New York City. He muted the extravagance of backgrounds, avoided operatic gesture, and showed particular care in the draping of clothes upon seated sitters. Photographing by natural light, he used diffusion screens and baffles to give his shadows softness and staunch glare. He paid less attention than Sarony or Falk to the manipulation of the negative.