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Charles Albin

Time Period: 
Fifth Avenue, Manhattan


Born in Canada, Charles Albin emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1892; he was ten years old. Intensely religious, he prepared to enter holy orders. Because of his artistic talents the Catholic Church dispatched him the Cincinnati Art Academy to be trained as a painter by Frank Duveneck. Initially, his sponsoring monastery intended that he become a creator of devotional images, but a change in the monastery's leadership led to its questioning of the value of painting as a means of worship. Albin was ordered to return to the cloister; he refused, staying with Duveneck who finished his training. After graduation Albin settled in New York plying both painting and photography at his studio on Fifth Avenue. He enjoyed success as a Society photographer, but always regarded himself as a painter.

During the 1918 Flu pandemic, Albin nearly died in Roosevelt Hospital. Lacking vital signs, he had been placed in the morgue. A physician friend hearing of this, demanded to see the body. Being placed on the cold metal examination table shocked the photographer back to vitality.

About this time, Albin became an important portrait photographer of entertainers. In its 1925 25th anniversary issue, Theatre Magazine named him one of the 10 most influential theater photographers since 1900. Among his contributions to the performing arts, was his discovery of actress Mary Astor. The entertainer who had the most determinative influence upon his life was movie actress Lillian Gish, a frequent client, who convinced Albin to come with her to Italy to do the stills for "Romola."

His photographic evocations of Renaissance Florence created a sensation. Clemenceau insisted on being given two of Albin's prints when they were shown in Paris early in 1924. The Florence venture nearly marked the end of Albin's career, however, for he was mistakenly arrested for the murder and mutilation of an Italian woman and her baby. The public outcry for swift justice and capital punishment turned Albin’s hair white during his week in jail. The American consul eventually secured his release when evidence indicated that a deranged Russian artist committed the crime.

Upon his return to the United States, he led a bicoastal life, working part of the year in his New York studio, then moving to California for the remainder to undertake studio work. His still photography proved to be his undoing, for the incandescent lights employed on sets gave his eyes infared neurosis, which disrupted his eyes' ability to focus. He retired to Culver City in 1929 to paint flowers. His studio was dominated by a Gleb Derujinsky sculpture of Lillian Gish as the Madonna. In the 1930s, Albin rejoined the Franciscan Order and spent the last years of his life in a monastary.

NOTES: "Screen: Pro Bono Publico," NYT 7-17-1921. "Screen: Points of View," NYT 11-12-1922. "East Bows to Mary and Doug," Los Angeles Times 7-17-1924. "Lillian Gish being Sculped as Romola," Los Angeles Times 9-2-1924, A:10. "Gish Adoration Retained," Los Angeles Times 9-30-1931. David S. Shields/ALS


For a painter-photographer, Charles Albin was singularly intent on maintaining the distinct qualities of the genres. He favored fidelity in portraiture and the mechanical approximation of natural lighting. An ardent student of cinematic techniques, even when he worked as a portraitist, he regularly corresponded with the New York Times critics of motion pictures, calling attention to fine work by cinematographers. His July 17, 1921 remarks on the photography of Rex Ingram's "The Conquering Power" reveals much about Albin's aesthetic values: "Without resort to the idiotic fuzziness, whereby many a fool director or cameraman imagines that he produces an 'artistic shot,' this cameraman has achieved a most beautiful waxiness, if I may use the word, never sacrificing essential sharpness. In his interiors he has produced masterpieces of lighting, pure and simple. He has subordinated background detail, emphasized his main groups, within blazing halos of sunshine 'through the ceiling' (back lighting.) For one thing he has made the light appear to enter the rooms from the windows, as it should. And he has had the courage to insist on uttermost simplicity, a true stroke of genius."