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Otto Sarony

Time Period: 
1875-1903
Location: 
New York
Biography: 

(1850-1903)

No irony is greater than that surrounding the artistic legacy of Otto Sarony, son and heir of Napoleon Sarony, the premier theatrical photographer of the 19th century. Otto began directing sessions that appeared under the Sarony signature in the late 1880s. He presided over virtually every session undertaken by the studio from 1893 until his father's death in 1896. From 1896 until October 7, 1898, he was sole proprietor of the business. In 1898 he sold "all the fixtures, implements, cameras, lenses, specimens and materials used in about the photographic establishment . . . together with the trade-mark "Sarony'" to Jonathan Burrow. In 1902, desiring greater income, Otto Sarony, perhaps to fund his activities as a yachtsman, sold the right to his name to photographic entrepreneur Theodore C. Marceau. Otto Sarony served as Marceau's manager from Dec. 22, 1902, until his death in September 1903. From September 1903 onward, the Otto Sarony label issued photographs taken by other photographers. Otto Sarony remained a brand until World War I, and when the Marceau Studio merged with the Otto Sarony Studio in 1906, the volume of issues under the Otto Sarony name multiplied. Thus, in all likelihood, the photographs appearing under the brand Otto Sarony are in all probability not his creations, but those of W.H. Babbitt and a host of nameless cameramen.

Otto Sarony was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when his father ran the Sarony & Major lithographic studio. He worked as an operator in his father's studio beginning with its establishment in 1868. A college graduate, he took particular control of Sarony and Co.'s college portrait business, serving as one of the cameramen photographing the cadets of West Point in 1870, and Yale, Wesleyan, Dartmouth, Union, and Hamilton Colleges in 1871. He assisted his father in set up of the elaborate tableaux series of the mid-1870s, took many of the public trade portraits taken at the studio at Union Square, and was formally designated the Manager of Sarony Studio after the studio moved to Fifth Avenue.

And yet, Otto Sarony proved most committed to his love of physical culture. An avid athlete, he competed in speed skating tournaments, swim matches, rowing contests, and yacht races. He was a founding member of the New York Athletic Club and often an officer.

Otto Sarony's foremost legacy has been legal. The litigation by Ernest M. Burrow against Theodore Marceau over the misuse of the Sarony name became a landmark case law.

NOTES: "Class Photographs," Yale Literary Magazine vol 35 (New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1870), 477. "The Photographer's Art," Patriot (Feb 11, 1889), 4. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Beginning as a college class portraitist for his father, Napoleon Sarony, Otto Sarony learned the art of artistic posing during the 1880s. His views on photography occasionally emerged in the press. He sounds like a proprietary professional in an 1889 piece regretting the spread of amateur photography, the presence of amateur images in exhibitions, and the loss of the open air photograph business to shutterbugs. His dislike of the sharpness of instantaneous dry-plate images and preference for the long exposure wet plates placed him at odds with contemporaries such as Benjamin Falk and Jacob Schloss. Yet he knew that beauty was the hallmark of female celebrity, and nobility the byword of male theatrical portraiture. He had little talent for comic portraiture or production stills. When Theordore Marceau purchased his name, the images appearing as Otto Sarony were dry plate, gestural, and fashionable.