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Edwin F. Townsend

Time Period: 
36 W. 73rd St., 141 W. 54th; New York City

Born in Iowa in 1879, Edwin F. Townsend came to New York early in the 1900s. After the armistice, he took up professional photography, working with Lockeed Pictorial Co. In early autumn of 1921, he opened a studio on the upper west side of Manhattan. He established his credentials in the world of theatrical photography with a suite of portraits of opera singer/movie actress Geraldine Ferrar. He would continue as an active theatrical and celebrity photographer for the next two decades, excelling in dance photography.

In the mid-1920s, noting the success of fellow New Yorkers Edwin Bower Hesser and Alfred Cheney Johnston in supplementing studio income from portraiture with nudes (sold to "art magazines" and privately by mail order), Townsend began shooting male physique photographs. Among the Broadway photographers only Nickolas Muray then made the male nude an important component of his work. Bernarr Macfadden, the publisher and promoter of physical culture, and Ted Shawn, the modern dancer, in the 1920s elaborated a new aesthetics of the male body. Two poles of imagery came to the fore: a neoclassicism in which models posed in the attitudes of Greek statues, and a native Americanism in which models moved in dances enacting natural masculinity. Though Townsend (and Muray) had dealings with both Macfadden and Shawn, his own aesthetics tended toward the classical. Indeed, the produced the most famous set of physique photographs of the interwar period when he posed the model/actor Tony Sansone, whom he discovered in a David Belasco theatrical production, in a series of poses of Greek simplicity and dignity.

Townsend published two small books of photographic studies, dutifully airbrushed, of Sansone: Modern Classics (1932) and Rhythm (1935). For true connoisseurs, Townsend sold original prints, signed in red ink, of Sansone fully revealed. These images are among the most cherished and artistic icons of physique photography, establishing a standard of masculine beauty.

In 1933 Townsend moved his studio to midtown Manhattan. There he shot society portraiture, fashion layouts for department stores, and occasional theatrical and movie publicity work. The studio operated until the late 1950s. David S. Shields/ALS


Townsend practiced three genres of photography: portraiture, phyique photography, and dance production images. The dance photography was dynamic, the physique photography, static and stately, and portraiture, varied, suiting the sitters' wishes. Signing his finished portraits in red pen, Townsend made a distinction between presentation prints and mass circulation images. While he placed images with the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and other of the large circulation periodics of the 1920s and '30s, his greatest fascination was with the unique print.