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December 1, 2020

20 Stunning Studio Portraits Taken by Benjamin J. Falk From Between the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Benjamin ‘Jake’ Falk (1853-1925) at the turn of the 20th century was the most reputable theatrical portraitist working in New York.

Born in New York City and educated at City College, Falk apprenticed with George Rockwood, the Broadway portrait photographer. In 1877, he opened his first studio, distressingly far from the theater district, yet he was determined to specialize in theatrical images. His personal audacity and his attention to the latest technological inventions kept him in business despite his lacking the opulent studio fixtures of his rivals Sarony and Jose Mora.

Performers had to cart their costumes and props to Falk‘s premises for sittings. His inability to pay for exclusive picture rights with stars periodically got him into law suits, such as an 1887 contest with Lilian Olcott who presumed she had entered such an arrangement, but was informed she had to pay for prints that she ordered. Falk was an aggressive businessman, repeatedly bringing debtors to court throughout his career more than any other photographer in the city.

In theatrical history Falk is most noted for taking the first in theatre production photographs. Using electrical lights, he captured the first stage picture, an Act II tableaux from The Russian Honeymoon at the Madison Square Theater on May 1, 1883. By 1890, he had become a force in photographic circles, pushing for faster exposure times and more stable photographic emulsions.

By 1905 he was the senior active photographer on the New York scene. While the majority of portraitist in New York City considered themselves ‘society photographers,’ Falk, emulating his model, Napoleon Sarony (whose bronze bust adorned the sitting room of Falk‘s townhouse), asserted that he was a theatrical photographer.


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