Kenneth Alexander was born in England in 1887, and began his training at age 12 in a large London photographic studio. He was sixteen when his family emigrated to New York in 1903. In New York City he continued his training as an assistant to the English-born photographer Ernest Walter Histed, an expert at dramatic portrait in low light settings.
At age 19 he went independent, moving to Millville, New Jersey, and commencing a business doing "home portraiture." This meant hauling his 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 box camera and Dalmeyer 3D lens into a person's private residence, shooting the sitter and family in found light, and working up 8 of the 24 exposures into proofs, including images that remove the background and supply a hand-worked pattern painted or engraved directly onto the negative.
Alexander's portraits earned national notice in 1907 when a print of painter Arthur W. Dow topped the portrait category in the Third American Salon at the Toledo Museum of Art and was featured in the annual volume of The American Amateur Photographer along with images by many members of the Photo-Secession. Alexander possessed a second skill that few in the profession had, facility with the pen. In addition to contributing articles to the photographic periodicals, his 1909 memoir of photographic apprenticeship in England and New York, published in Wilson's Photographic Magazine, is one of the most informative accounts of the different training methods employed in Great Britain and the United States in the early 20th century. Alexander became a United States citizen in 1914. He published portraits intermittently throughout the 1910s. His growing renown permitted him to redirect his business increasing from home photography to celebrity portraiture.
During World War I, Alexander's contact with the theatrical world led to romance when actress Mollie King fell in love with him. They married in 1919, and he moved to New York City to accommodate her stage career. He wo distinction in the crowded New York studio scene by advertising himself as a "Photographer of Women Exclusively," genderswitching Pirie McDonald’s famous motto about being a photographer of men. His first magazine sale in his new role was in 1921 to Theatre Magazine. Thereafter, he did steady magazine and newspaper work portraying theatre personalities, but the bulk of his earliest contract work was with film companies located in the New York metropolitan area. By the early 1920s, he became particularly well connected with United Artists studio.
Alexander's life in Hollywood commenced when Lillian Gish convinced M.G.M. to contract Alexander to do the portrait work for her 1926 feature "La Boheme." After a gypsy period shuttling between coasts, he settled in California where Sam Goldwyn Productions employed him throughout the 1930s. He belonged to the Camera Pictorialists group in South California and exhibited in their salons at the Los Angeles Museum. In Hollywood he became a general studio photographer, doing stills, portraits, and costume shots. His daring as a still photographer, standing midstream to catch an action shot of a canoe capsizing, features prominently in John Wolfenden's prose portrait of Hollywood's still men published in the May 5, 1935 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Alexander valued his portrait work more highly than his stills, and sent them regularly to photographic salons around the world. He refused to do candid photos, a curious reversal of his early inclination toward home portraiture.
NOTES: The American Amateur Photographer 19 (1907), 22, 25. Kenneth Alexander, "Home Portraiture as a Business," Camera Craft 17 (1910), 345-351. Kenneth Alexander, "Some Photographers," Wilson's Photographic Magazine 47 (1910), 224-226. Kenneth Alexander, "London Photography," Wilson's Photographic Magazine 46 (1909), 54-56. Theatre Magazine 30 (1919), 89. David S. Shields/ALS
Kenneth Alexander's career divided into three phases. His early home portrait work, from 1905 to 1917, was inspired by the most pictorial of home photographers, H.H. Pierce of Boston, and the deeply toned and intensely modeled portraiture of E.W. Histed. His performing arts portraiture, from 1917 to 1926, combined the artistry of posing of his earlier work with the expertise at deploying artificial light in studio sittings of Baron DeMeyer. This finesse was retained in his Hollywood portrait work. His handling of outdoor still photography was derived from witnessing the protocols established by Clarence S. Bull for his crew in M.G.M.'s camera department.