Born in Florida, daughter of the Episcopal Bishop of Cincinnati, Mary Dale Clarke moved to New York City shortly before the turn of the 20th century. Trained as a fine artist, degrading eyesight pushed her into photography. An intellectual, she attempted to make her way as an author, but her attempts at playwriting failed, and her short stories were never placed in important magazines. She was drawn to religious speculation and thereby gravitated into the sphere of actor Walter Hampden and designer Claude Bragdon, both mystics with a penchant for theosophy. It was Hampden, apparently, who urged her to become a theatrical photographer. Because of the lively competition in this field, Clarke decided to specialize in Children's Photography as well. Her success in this secondary pursuit, drove her to pursue greater prominence in the former.
She hired two additional cameramen for her studio, Charles J. Fox and John J. McCutcheon, granting both co-credit on images they took. Her own tastes ran to the unconventional, a fact she advertised in her advertising slogan, "specializing in difficult subjects." In 1922 she disavowed interest in the beautiful faces of the common performer, preferring as more artist the plain featured person whose psychologiy registered readily on his or her features. "The beauty that comes from earnestness or interest which flashes for a moment, dies out, and returns again is much more vivid and striking than that of the even-featured variety." In the later 1920s, at the instigation of designer Norman Bel Geddes, Clarke became fascinated with modern architecture and began providing photographic illustrations for periodical and book treatments of building design. At the time of her death in August 1936 her estate amounted to $17,000, the largest share of which went to her adopted daughter, Ardra Tolles.
NOTES: Chicago Tribune (8-9-1936), 18; "Cyrus K. Clarke," NYT (10-14-1932), 19; "Do you 'Photograph Well,'" Sandusky Star Journal (October 7, 1922), 5. David S. Shields/ALS
Clarke claimed to capture the souls of sitters. This could apparently be done at some distance from the subject, for she avoided close-up "face" portraits. Her theatrical portraiture featured actresses in modern dress and men in costume. She used diffusion lenses and, like Arnold Genthe whom she admired, thought beauty a kind of aura radiating from a person.