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Joseph Byron

Time Period: 
1888-1923
Location: 
1695 Broadway, Manhattan, NYC
Biography: 

(1846-1926)

Joseph Byron made the stage picture a fixture in the lobbies of American theaters and on the pages of American magazines. While Benjamin J. Falk received recognition as the first to take a production still of a commercial stage play (Act II of "Russian Honeymoon" in 1883), Byron’s suites of images from New York productions from the latter half of the 1890s revealed the poetry of performance. A native of Britain and raised in a family of photographers, he began his career as an event and documentary photographer in the glass negative era. He claimed to have made his first flash picture (illumination by controlled magnesium flare) on March 10, 1863 of an event featuring the Prince of Wales. He came to the United States in 1887, but did not begin producing flashlight stage pictures until 1890 when he photographed "Blue Jeans" for J. W. Rosenquest. It would not be until 1895 that he convinced George Lederer of the Casino Theater that he would profit by paying Byron for pictures to be given gratis to publishers with a copyright waver as publicity.

Throughout the first decade of his career as stage photographer, Byron wrestled with the problem of the artificial look of flash illumination—its eradication of shadow.  He experimented tirelessly to achieve more poetic results, using 11x14 plates, a fourteen-inch Ross-Goerz lens, and Wratton panchromatic plates. By 1905 he orchestrated as many as eight lights triggered in sequence for a second and a half exposure. While his earliest images, taken from the house, simply compassed the entire stage, he began taking his camera on stage amid the performers after producers began demanding between 15 and 30 views of a production.

Byron, like Benjamin J. Falk, worried about the exploitation of photographers by editors wishing to appropriate and use images without payment or copyright. He joined Falk’s Copyright Protection League, serving as treasurer, and assisted in the formulation of standard contracts.  Any photographer could receive these contract forms for free upon request to either Falk or Byron.

Byron’s theatrical work tended to occupy the evening hours. During the daylight he roamed the city looking for scenes usable by The Illustrated American and other periodicals. He was an adventurous explorer of the city, capturing tenement interiors, industrial zones, pastoral yards, and riverscapes. His son Percy often accompanied him. 

Two rivals emerged for Byron’s theatrical business during the first decade of the 20th century.  The long-established Brooklyn photographer Joseph Hall became a force on Broadway, underselling Byron with the producers. In 1903 the Newark, New Jersey commercial photographer Luther S. White, entered the business as well. He allied with the Shubert Brothers, and vowed to travel to Philadelphia or Boston to catch shows in preparation for Broadway to supply advance images. When Byron fell ill in 1910, he sold his equipment and backstock of images to White who rebranded the images as his own. Byron's son, Percy, continued the photo documentary business until the Second World War. 

Byron’s experienced frail health during his final years, but enjoyed notice as a pioneer of an important branch of photography. Luther White spent much of his career attempting to revise the history of flashlight photography in order to replace Byron as its patriarch; but historians little credited White’s claims. 

NOTES:  Sadakichi Hartmann, "Joseph Byron-The Stage is My Studio," The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (Berkeley: University of California P, 1978 reprint), 239-44. Frederic Felix, "Photography of the Stage," The American Annual of Photography vol. 37 (1922), 77-80. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

The most artistic of the early "stage picture" photographers, Joseph Byron attempted to capture the dynamic of stage action from unusual angles at moments of acute emotional impact. His stage scene shots are the most valued of his theatrical photographs. By the end of the 1890s he used a synchronized array of seven lamps held by assistants scattered around the front of the stage and in back of the scenery.

One particularly striking aspect of Byron’s work was its toning. He favored selenium toners in strong solution giving his prints a rich purple-brown hue. So pronounced was his resort to this toning in his stage pictures that his competitors Hall and White were forced to employ it when producers demanded it as a sign of a quality production.

Nonetheless, Byron's studio was a diversified business, doing New York scenic shots, ship launchings & arrivals (often shot by Percy Byron in later years), plein air event photographs, and portraiture.

NOTES: Felix Frederick, "Photography of the Stage," The American Annual of Photography (NY, 1923), 176-180.