Born near rural Richmond, Missouri, Orval Hixon as a schoolboy sought to be a painter, but color blindness prompted teachers to urge him to take up black & white photography. Through his teens he worked as a printer's apprentice in the Richmond Missourian, supplying occasional news and portrait photos. Throughout his twenties, he worked as a newspaperman shooting photographs on the side. Strongly interested in visual texture and spatial arrangement, he studied portrait photography in magazines to nourish his taste. He regarded himself a participant in the Arts & Crafts movement and held the conviction that any working person in the United States could be an artist.
He served six years as a technician in Studebaker Studios in Kansas City before opening, in 1914, Hixon-Knight Studio, a partnership devoted to children's photography. The artistry of Homer K. Peyton of the Strauss-Peyton Studio in Kansas City in handling photo backgrounds stirred Hixon's ambition. He jettisoned his partner, and sought to develop a first-tier professional business. He studied graphic arts at the Kansas City Art Institute and began aggressively to manipulate his negatives. In 1916 a theatrical gypsy, James Hargis Connelly, offered to become Hixon's business manager if Hixon would teach him photography. They formed a partnership. Connelly's theatrical connections immediately bore fruit. By the end of 1916 he produced a memorable series of publicity portraits of vamp Valeska Suratt for Fox Studio. In January 1917 Hixon placed his first portrait, of Ruth St. Denis, in Theatre Magazine, commencing his career as a first call camera artist for national periodicals.
From late 1917-1919 Connelly was a soldier in Europe, and Hixon in isolation continued his experimentation with portraits, dissolving the emulsion in the backgrounds of photographs with acetone, abrading the negatives to form areas of light, using paints and graphite pencils to sketch in patterns surrounding the subject. He specialized in romantic visions of lyrical femininity and mysterious images of gothic intensity.
In 1920, he moved his studio to the Baltimore hotel. The citizens of Kansas City flocked to the studio. Banking on the reputation, he opened branch studios in Liberty, Missouri, and Manhattan, Kansas. He also contracted short term partnerships with H. Kenyon Newman (1923) and James A. Wiese (1926, 1928). The rise of the movie house and the decline of vaudeville led to the attenuation of his theatrical business in the later 1920s. In 1930, he left Kansas City to Bert Studio and Cornish-Baker Studio, and moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he maintained the business in the Eldredge hotel until 1958.
His negatives and a number of prints were donated to the Art Museum of the University of Kansas. The Kansas City Public Library in 2010 opened a gallery whose contents were donated by members of the Hixon family of a substantial body of his performing arts images. A brief autobiography and critical appreciation appears in James Enyeart's, Main Street Studio (The University of Kansas Museum of Art, 1971). David S. Shields/ALS
Hixon was the premier autodidact photographer of the Midwest Arts & Crafts movement. A pictorialist in the sense that he considered the photographic print an art object worthy of fetishistic elaboration, he nevertheless was drawn to artifice rather than nature.
He was also a portraitist, working at times in conjuction with James Hargis Connelly, the Chicago photographer, interested in evoking the magic of theatrical craft in the studio. His manipulations of negatives are often extensive, sometimes creating strange arabesques of light, or reticulations of shadow in the backgrounds for graphic interest. He had a penchant for dark and half shaded prints.
While he published in national magazines frequently in the 1920s, his reproduced images lack the impact of the original prints which are among the strangest and most compelling of the period. Because his subjects tended to be vaudevillians touring one of the three circuits that conjoined in Kansas City, his portraits partook of the extremity of gesture and expression characteristic of the extraordinarily competitive world of vaudeville. When glamour portraiture was tending to stillness and coolness of expression, Hixon explored the most extravagant practitioners of personal notice-grabbing.