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Irving Chidnoff

Time Period: 
469 Fifth Ave., 550 Fifth Ave., New York City

Russian-born celebrity photographer Irving Chidnoff founded his studio in 1925 and for thirty years would photograph the famous and would-be famous of New York City. From the first he recognized that periodical and newspaper publication was the key to establishing his reputation. Photographing theatrical personalities he saw was the way to break into print. His first sale to the New York Times was a full-body portrait of Dorothy Brown in the operetta "Polly" published on October 25, 1925. Four months later, Edward Steichen accepted Chidnoff's first submission to Vanity Fair. Because of the number of talented photographers working in Manhattan, Chidnoff knew he would have to diversify to survive. By late 1926 he was doing fashion photography in addition to portraiture. In 1928 he entered aggressively into the Society portrait trade and quickly established himself as a power, rivaling Ira Hill and Hal Phyfe, and eclipsing them among the New York City's Jewish elite. In 1931 his wedding portraits to the New York Times outnumbered his theatrical images for the first time, as they would throughout the remainder of his career. Even in the social conscious 1930s, Chidnoff's disavowal of glamour put him at odds with Hollywood aesthetics; fortunately, his humanistic style better suited the style of the theater. His 1930s portraiture communicated a humanity and solidity that clients found extremely attractive. In the mid 1930s Chidnoff turned his camera from the stage to the concert house, concentrating on portraiture of classical musicians. By the late 1940s he had retired to Miami, selling both his name and facilities.

Throughout much of the 1930s Chidnoff operated as a major photographer of University yearbook portraits.  His mobile team of photographers included James and Lou Colonna, Sol Herzon, and record keepers Margaret Richards and Ann Harvey.  The volume of these images kept the Studio solvent during a difficult decade for celebrity photography. He published these until 1946.  At that juncture Chidnoff turned the management of the studio over to a member of his staff. The studio remained open until the mid 1950s as Chidnoff Block.

David S. Shields/ALS


Early in June 1931 Irving Chidnoff engaged in a widely published debate with John Held and Rolf Armstrong on the visual character of beauty in women. While Held and Armstrong championed the ideals of photogenic glamour as projected by Hollywood and embodied in the images of Greta Garbo and Evelyn Brent, Chidnoff demurred, "An exquisite face and a perfect figure mean nothing at all to me, if the spark of personality is lacking." He confessed that he sought in a sitter a soul more than an image, desiring to see "the brain which shines through the eyes and the character that is revealed by the poise of the head." Chidnoff's emphasis on the face and head in this declaration is mirrored in his photographic works. No one, not even Herbert Mitchell, exposed so many close-up portraits over the course of his lifetime. Even his fashion photography featured waist up apparel and hats. (The few full-body representations in Chidnoff's oeuvre tend to be dancers.) His great success as a Society photographer derived from an ability to capture something in a sitter that he or she recognized as a truth. There was never much artistic manipulation of the negative. There was no expressionist experiment with shadow. There was little self-conscious stylization, and no modernist angles or abstraction. Instead, there was a human palpability to the portraits that made Chidnoff's subjects seem something other than mere celebrties. After the Depression, this plain style humanism seemed somehow an appropriately "realistic" approach.