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Theodore C. Marceau

Time Period: 
285 Fifth Ave., NY; branches in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Boston


Col. Theodore C. Marceau pioneered the creation of national chains of photographic studios in the 1880s. His New York branch in the first decade of the 20th century engaged in a great deal of celebrity and theatrical photography. Marceau emerged as a national name in the photographic profession at age twenty-two, serving as a U.S. government photographer, stationed in Santiago, Chile, on the 1882 expedition recording the transit of Venus from South America. Thereafter, he served on the staff of Governor Foraker of Ohio, then Governor Markham of California. His military and governmental service imprinted upon the young photographer a hierarchical notion of institutional organization.

After leaving public office he lived in 1885-86 in Cincinnati Ohio, and entered into the first of several partnership arrangements. Marceau supplied the capital, built a state of the art studio, made the best practitioner in the city his partner, and waited for one of two things to happen. If the partner had commercial ambitions, he would save and buy Marceau out (R.P. Bellsmith in Cincinnati, for example); Marceau would then take the profits and establish another partnership in another city. If the partner had no such ambitions, and was content to labor for the mutual benefit of the partnership (George F. Basset in Indianapolis, for instance), Marceau benefited as well. In 1888 Marceau moved to San Francisco, taking quarters in the Palace Hotel and establishing the most elaborate gallery in the city in the Phelan Building.

While Marceau retained interests in photographic processes and technical innovations, he ceased conducting sittings in the late 1880s, turning the practical operation of the studio over to a photographer-manager. In San Francisco the photographer was Frederick Bushnell. The Colonel's penchant for lengthy round the world cruises and neglect of business prompted Bushnell, irked at doing the labor that supported his employer's tourism, to seize the negatives he made and set up an independent gallery. Marceau returned in December of 1893 in the midst of this effort and brought suit. Bushnell, however, proved to be an astute student of his master, and built his own West Coast chain of studios in the 1890s.

Strangely, Bushnell's defection proved to be the least of Marceau's difficulties in the decade. In 1891 he married the widow Amanda Fiske, inaugurating a short-lived and volatile connection with a woman whose estate of encumbered property drained his ready cash and whose eye for young men led to a late night raid in 1896 discovering her in flagranti delecto with gambler John B. Maloney. Marceau seized his son, instigated divorce proceedings, and enmeshed himself in a headline-generating legal rhubarb that lasted four years.

In 1900, he decided to transfer his base of operations to New York City. The death of Napoleon Sarony in 1896 had left a vaccum in the city. Jonathan Burrow had already purchased the Sarony studio, but Marceau reasoned that if he could purchase the name rights of Napoleon's son, Otto Sarony, he could coopt the biggest name in celebrity photography. He opened a lavish gallery, and installed Edgar A. Caffey as his photographer/operator. Throughout much of the first decade of the 20th century Marceau ran two major studios in New York: Otto Sarony and Marceau. The Sarony gambit compelled Marceau to an extended bout in the courts fighting the claims of Jonathan and Ernest Burrow to the brand.

Because of Marceau's liberal administrations of champagne, his skill as a raconteur, and his sociable nature, he immediately became a fixture in the associational world of the profession in New York. In 1905 he and Pirie McDonald organized the Professional Photographers Society of New York State and served as its First Vice-President. With B.J. Falk and Pirie MacDonald, Marceau organized the Copyright League that lobbied Congress for stronger rights protections for photographers against the appropriation of their images by newspapers. It is he that recommended that a c with a circle around it and the photographer's name on the front of an image serve as the public claim that an image was copyright protected.

Marceau was an acquisitive genius who took the proceeds from his studio at 285 Fifth Avenue and sunk them into real estate and collecting. He owned substantial chunks of Manhattan real estate, a fleet of automobiles, and "one of the finest collections of bric-a-brac in this country." He was listed in the New York "Blue Book." At his death, he was worth millions. His ability as a photographer was recognized by le Ministere de I'Instruction publique of France which named him Officer d'Academie. His son Theodore, Jr., took over operation of the studio. But the Yale-trained lawyer's interest lay elsewhere and he sold the brand shortly after his father's death in 1922. David S. Shields/ALS


Col. Marceau ran diversified photographic studios that did portraiture, scientific photography, and occasional photojournalism. Upon Marceau's marriage to Amanda Fiske in 1891, he became greatly interested in theatrical portraiture, making extensive use of props, drapes, and painted backdrops in his portraits. Well connected to the political establishment, Marceau also specialized in official portraiture, travel images, and advertising photography. His various branches were run as local service photography shops, doing home photography, Society shots, and official function images.