Born in Russia in 1881, Maurice Goldberg emigrated to the United States in 1905, married the next year, and set up residence on Bryant Avenue in the Bronx. Trained in the fine arts, he initially tried his hand at painting. Photography was an ancillary pursuit. He began to experiment with pictorialist portraiture of his family, and achieved such gratifying results that he rethought his metier. The influx of Russian performing artists, particularly dancers and actors, into New York in the 1910s provided him a newsworthy subject.
By 1916 he was regularly placing images in national magazines. For the next twenty-five years he would be a celebrated artist, the staff photographer for The Theatre in the mid-1920s, and the major dance photographer supplying images to the New York newspapers. Significant bodies of his work appear in Shadowland, Vanity Fair, Stage, and The Theatre. While he maintained a studio for shooting celebrity portraits, he preferred to be on site at the theaters and in the countryside where dance was going on.
One feature of his practice was his tireless pursuit of technical mastery with every new paper, developing formula, and many new cameras that appeared. His publicity work for the magazines had dramatic shadowing, strong form, and pictorial clarity. His exhibition pieces often used screen toning, dodging, and the graphic reworking of the backgrounds. In the late 1920s he began experimenting with multiple exposures.
Goldberg's technical mastery attracted the notice of Hollywood. He worked regularly on film projects from the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, first for R.K.O. shooting Fred Astaire films, then Warner Brothers for Bette Davis classics such as "Jezebel," and finally Universal. His Hollywood nickname, "Goldie," referred more to his red-gold hair than his last name.
In his later years, he served as the model for younger photographers, namely Maurice Seymour in Chicago. From the 1930s until supplanted by Alfredo Valente 1938, Goldberg published photos illustrating John Martin’s New York Times commentaries on the state of dance. He was George Gershwin’s favorite photographer and one of Goldberg’s images of Gershwin at the piano has become an iconic image of popular American music. David S. Shields/ALS
The greatest dance photographer of the 1920s and 30s, a talented portraitist, a chronicler of persons in the performing arts, Maurice Goldberg liked to show dancers and musicians engaged in performance. Although he preferred prints in smaller formats, even using large format photographic plates and slow film Goldberg could communicate motion better than Arnold Genthe, who obscured action in shadow, and Nickolas Muray, who liked to pose dancers in stances of arrested torsion in his studio. Goldberg depicted dancers doing the choreography of the works they performed in public.
In the 1920s Goldberg sometimes did glamour photography, nudes, and was one of the strongest promoters of the fad of plein air dancing photography. Initially he had a penchant for soft-focus images, but the imagery sharpened in the 1930s.