You are here

Myrtle Stedman

Kansas City Style: the Artist's Hand and the Vaudeville Portrait 1912-1930


David S. Shields

Kansas City from 1900 to 1926 pursued a distinctive style of theatrical portraiture, employing backgrounds painted directly on the glass plate negative, either representational landscapes painted in an expressively gestural style or abstract patterns of tone. These vibrant backgrounds suited the sort of celebrity most frequently featured as the sitter, the vaudeville artist. 

The style emerged as early as 1903 in Strauss Studio through the collaboration of photographer Benjamin Strauss and artist Homer K. Peyton. In Kansas City it would be imitated and applied to home portraiture by David Baker of Cornish-Baker Studio and embraced by Orval Hixon and James Hargis Connelly in 1916.  In the 1920s, it would be practiced by two of Hixon’s later collaborators, A. Kenyon Newman and James A. Wiese, and become a hallmark of Bert Studio in the latter 1920s and ‘30s. 

The style spread through the Midwest in the 1920s.  Connelly took it to Chicago where it was also adopted by his rival, Daguerre Studio. In St. Louis Wilson Todd in the 1920s refined a quite stylish version of the approach. 

The idea from the style may have derived from J. C. Strauss of St. Louis, whose Lyrit portraits of 1901 combined drawn elements with photographic.  Yet the linearity of Strauss’s approach clearly indicated that Reutlinger’s French art nouveau cabinet cards of 1899 and 1900 inspired the hybrid.  J. C. Strauss’s younger brother, Benjamin, had apprenticed in the St. Louis Studio before removing to Kansas City. Yet that removal took place before the first Lyrit images; and Benjamin Strauss’s approach was decidedly more painterly.

Earlier theatrical photographers occasionally expanded  the techniques of retouching to blur the bounds between background paintings and foreground sitters.  Jose Maria Mora, trained as a painter, loved to suspend human likenesses in painterly envelopes.  Antonio Moreno in the 1880s painted clouds on his negative to much applause among the photographic fraternity.  When duotone reproduction enabled periodicals to print photographic illustrations, editors commonly obliterated complex photographic backgrounds and had a gazette or magazine draughtsman supply a substitute background, often with disregard for verisimilitude. 

Burr McIntosh, the actor-photographer-editor made it a common practice to supply a highly elaborate substitute background for the photographic portraits in his lavishly illustrated Burr McIntosh Monthly.  Some of his own images wrought in this manner were produced as photographic cabinet cards.  Actor-photographer Frank C. Bangs also produced magazine portraits with graphically elaborated backgrounds worked on the negative.  Yet none of these earlier melders of the graphic and photographic arts made such a dramatic contrast between foreground and background as the Kansas City photographers. 

Kansas City’s tradition of portrait practice was conventional prior to the innovations of Strauss and Peyton.  From 1875 to the 1910s D. P. Thomson reigned as the local portraitist of record.  He easily negotiated the transition from wet plate to dry plate photography in the 1880s, purchased background paintings from Lafayette W. Seavey as did every other major portraitist in the country, and employed tinters and crayon artists to convert photographs into graphic portraits.[1]  He was a discrete retoucher—a wrinkle eraser and a silhouette improver. 

In February of 1900 the J. C. Strauss studio burned in St. Louis. The hiatus of business convinced Benjamin Strauss, J. C.’s assistant, that it was time to establish his own business.  Not wishing to compete with his brother, he traversed the state, determined to establish himself in Kansas City. In August 1900 photographer George W. Curtiss took Benjamin R. Strauss as a partner.[2] Within a year, Curtiss retired from the studio and Strauss rebranded it in his own name. Strauss, besides being a thoroughly trained cameraman, was a skilled pastel artist, even getting into a payment law suit over one such portrait in 1902.[3]  Yet it was the hiring of artist Homer K. Peyton that set the studio on its path of experiment.  

Peyton, a native of Omaha, was a distinctive creature of his time and place.  Gay and an aesthete, he flourished in the school culture of the Midwest, becoming famous throughout Nebraska while a student at South Omaha High School as an elocutionist, actor, and singer.  He won first honors in oratory at the state school contest held in Wayne, NE, in 1900. The Omaha World Herald announced his final appearance in May 16, 1901, reporting “ he is soon to leave this city for other fields to follow his chosen profession.”[4] Yet Peyton did not go into acting or public speaking, but emerged as artist “on a St. Louis newspaper.”[5]  This position was short-lived, for the Kansas City Directories for 1903, 1904, 1905 indicated that Peyton was working for Ben Strauss as an artist-retoucher. 

The collaboration between Strauss and Peyton proved intense, personal, and creative. Strauss taught Peyton the management of the camera and lens.  Peyton taught Strauss how to be less formulaic in his graphic interventions on the negative and print.  In 1908 Strauss elevated him to full partner.  The pair proved complementary in their personalities—Strauss was Jewish, civic-minded, and comfortable in the world of businessmen, professionals, and civil servants (he claimed his first important job was taking portraits of members of the Kansas City police department); Peyton was fey, sociable, intellectual, and drawn to celebrities and High Society.  Between them they covered the entire spectrum of available business.  By 1912 they decided to expand their scope, dispatching Peyton to open a summer satellite studio in Denver during the summer months.  Stationed in the finest hotel in the city with a lobby display, they aggrieved the Denver photographers with their artistry, high prices, and cachet.[6] This summer visit became a regular event. 

One reason that the Denver photographers found themselves at such a disadvantage was that they followed portrait conventions in their set-ups, while Strauss-Peyton offered a distinctive visual signature.  Strauss explained the grounds of the studio’s stylistic individuality to The Photographers’ Association in 1916:

“I find a great interest in background work.  It appeals both to me and to my partner, Mr. Peyton, who has great gifts in that direction. . . . Long ago we discarded painted backgrounds.  The camera halls in both our studios are entirely without them.  We use worked’in backgrounds on all our orders.  Stock backgrounds may not have lost their usefulness with others but we personally look upon them as relics of a bygone age. As a result of our endeavors in this particular line “Strauss-Peyton portraits” are rather distinctive and people often tell me they are able to recognize our work, in the original or as reproduced in the magazines, before they see  the signature.  This individuality, or styl, acquired has proved to be a strong business asset, whether or not it is an artistic griumph.  The value is something like that of a well advertised trade-mark, and we give credit for much of the progress we have made to the public’s interest in this feature.  However, in the trade I encounter formidable criticism of our work from the standpoint of ‘artisticness.’ My fellow photographers around the country concede that we ‘get by’ but they content that our worked-in grounds are too conspicuous—that they fight the subjects.”[7]

When one examines the images after the period (1912-13) when they perfected their style,  the critiques of stylistic disparity between foreground and background sound phantasmagoric.  An image of the show dancer Mlle. Dazie taken in 1914 [Strauss-Peyton: Mlle. Dazie, Pantaloon], reveals an astute sense of tonal gradation from darker background to lighter sitter employing the same palate of grays, a well designed dynamic of diagonal elements that draws attention to Dazie's face, and a moody play of sublime, freely painted foliage and sky against the sobriety of her dark dress.  When the clothing and accessories of the sitter were lighter and more ornate, Peyton compensated by making backgrounds darker and less detailed.  [Strauss-Peyton: Fritzi Scheff]  In the latter years of the decade, Strauss began moving toward a more lightsome approach to portraits.  Landmasses became increasingly generalized and monochromatic. The stratigraphy of clouds became more delicate. [Strauss-Peyton:  Myrtle Stedman] In all of these images the harmonizing of sitter and background has a pictorial aptness and a psychological force.  Indeed, sometimes the psychology of the portrait demanded a disjunction between sitter and background.  In the image of Marilynn Miller made after she had achieved stardom in "Sally" a self-enchanted Miller gazes into space while  expressionist splays of paint (foliage? landmass?) sketches an agitated world.  [Strauss-Peyton: Marilyn Miller]

Strauss-Peyton ran a diversified portrait business.  For the citizen who wished a straight portrait shot with minimal artistic effect staff photographer Wilbert T. Love could provide the ideal promotion, engagement, or award image ready for reproduction in the newspaper.  Yet their fame in the larger world was built on images of performers who passed through Kansas City on one of the three theatrical-vaudeville circuits that intersected in the city.  The partners produced lobby photographs for the Kansas City Theaters as early as 1913, placed images in national magazines regularly after 1916, and were an established brand among performing arts photographers in 1918, when Homer K. Peyton first visited New York City rather than Denver for his summer studio work.  The founding of a branch in New York became a matter of contention between the partners.  Strauss was content to have the vaudeville business funnell performers to him; Peyton aspired to portray another higher class of artist, the leading lights of Broadway and motion pictures.  The contention would lead to a rupture in 1926, when Strauss dissolved the partnership, sold it to the DeClouds of Cornish Baker Studio, and moved to his birth down, Cleveland, to establish his own business.  Peyton maintained a New York Office until 1930 when he removed to Seattle for health reasons.  He maintained a studio there for two seasons.  

What was the ground of Peyton's dissatisfaction with the crop of performers available in Kansas City?  Primarily this: most were vaudevillians.  Most had internalized the extravagant gestures, mugging, gimmicks, and poses that seized eyes on bills where every other act also engaged in exaggerations, stylizations, and eccentricities to distinguish one as a headline act.  The Darwinian competition of the vaudeville stage bred an extremity of self-presentation that challenged photographers to capture it in a way that avoided caricature, incoherence, or fussiness. There was nothing quite so visually raw as a contortionist shot on a plain background. Strauss-Peyton had the additonal challenge of determining which sort of worked in background best worked--one that echoed the intensity of the artist, or one that foregrounded it be offered a muted contrast.  One can see in Peyton's handling of Anna Pavlova dancing (Pavlova and troupe toured on vaudeville and constituted the rarified high end of variety programming). [Strauss-Peyton: Pavlova] The complexity of the gesture and silhouette require that the background landscape--itself complicated--be restricted to a portion of the background, with a curtain simplify the left side. Is she dancing before an open window?  The sense of place is somewhat disturbed.  

In later years these sorts of active images were supplied an abstract contrasting background of lighter and darker tones, a device perhaps borrowed from their younger rival, Orval Hixon, in Kansas City.  

Orval Hixon and James Hargis Connelly

Orval Hixon came to the camera out of the print world.  He worked as a pressman first, for the Richmond Missourian, and as a part-time photo-journalist on the side.  Even in such a provincial outpost of the print world, Hixon was exposed to the very potent currents of artistic ambition that were circulating through the American periodical press.  Among printers the work of the Roycrofters and the Arts & Crafts presses inspired universal discussion throughout the United States.  The design and disposition of type, the stylistic harmonization of text and illustration, the subordination of decoration to design were demonstrated in magazines such as Elbert Hubbard’s The Philistine, and The Burr McIntosh Monthly. These examples were reinforced by articles and images in the specialist magazines: The Photographic Journal of AmericaAmerican Photography, Photo-Era, and Wilson’s Photographic Magazine. of the era.  Hixon, in the memoir published in Main Street Studio, recognizes the print world as the foremost source of his instruction in his art:  “My knowledge of photography, for what it was, had been picked up piece by piece from books, demonstrations, traveling tramp photographers, and state and national photographic associations.” 

There is a note of self-deprecation in these reminiscences, but we conclude from them that his education was faulty, or that his ambition was lacking.  The periodicals of the era made a point of presenting extraordinary photography, and Hixon labored to improve his aesthetic sensibility, taking lessons in graphic arts (he was color-blind, so he did not take painting) at the Kansas City Art Institute.  When Hixon established his studio on Main Street in Kansas City in 1914, he knew the technology of image taking and print making, and had schooled his eye and hand. 

Hixon first thought of himself as an artistic Society photographer, serving a broad local clientele who desired to appear glamorous, dignified, or charming. He advertised widely in Kansas City seeking sitters. Almost immediately he confronted the limitations that this specialty imposed on his expression—few respectable citizens of Kansas or Missouri wished to violate the conventions of posing for novel moods or attitudes.  He wanted the two tiered business that Strauss-Peyton Studio successfully conduced: a local clientele, and a national following, won by picturing streams of stage performers who passed through Kansas City on one of the three theatrical circuits—the Orpheum, the Shubert, and the Pantages--that traced the rail lines into the mid-west hub.  Hixon knew, because of the success of Strauss-Peyton in placing images with New York magazine editors, that if he could do the same, he could build a national reputation and consequently regional cachet from broadly distributed images.  But Hixon had no contacts with the theatrical world. 

He secured this connection through the efforts of a Wisconsin-born theatrical gypsy named James Hargis Connelly.  Connelly had spent most of his teen years on the road following his fortune as a part-time vaudevillian, a theatrical sketch writer, a talent broker, a medicine show entrepreneur, and a card player. In 1916, the 21- year old Connelly arrived in Kansas Ciety an announced to Hixon that he was sinking all his money into backing the young man’s studio, because he had the best advertising in the city. He would be Hixon’s business manager.

Connelly brought his vaudeville colleagues to the studio, and Hixon repaid him by teaching the young adventurer the art of photography.  In particular, they experimented with rendering shadows more dynamic with electric lamps, [Hixon: Marjorie Gateson] and prints more modern by doing away with boilerplate painted backdrops—the Gainsborough glades, classical pillars, and swag curtains that were standard equipment in the high end professional studios. Instead, the became emulsion scrapers. [Hixon: Ina Hayward] By 1917 Hixon & Connelly’s high key, chiarascuro lighting and abstract worked backgrounds were influencing their rival, Strauss-Peyton.

Connelly worked at Hixon’s side for a year and a half before America’s entry into the First World War prompted Connelly to enlist in the signal corps.  During Connelly’s service Hixon preserved their brand-name, though he did the work alone, and bought out Connellly’s share in 1921  With the money Connelly set up his own studio in Chicago, and began and twenty year career as a prominent theatrical photographer there, [Connelly: Blossom Seely] until playwrighting supplanted picture-making in Connelly’s heart in the 1940s.  Connelly’s Chicago performer portraits focus much more on the bust and head than Hixon, but displayed the characteristic Kansas City handling of the background, with negative painting and scraping prominently evident in the early 1920s images particularly.

Hixon in 1914 launched his career paralleling the Strauss-Peyton free manner of manipulating the background, though Hixon quickly found that he preferred scraping and abrading emulsion off the negatives rather than painting them to create his effects. In his image of "Flying Alcova" he dissolved the emulsion on the negative with benzene and painted the tint into a tumult about the image of the vaudeville dancer.  The dancer lay on a table in costume striking her pose which he photographed overhead. [Hixon: Anna Alcova] The aggressiveness of Hixon's intervention into the pictorial field registered immediately in the larger world of photography.  It marked a distinct step away from the soft focus aesthetic and diffiused natural lighting that prevailed among the more artistic of the photographers.

The prints these artists produced were subtlely toned, often graphically detailed, and striking in pose. [Hixon: Fouchon] Their frequently shadowed or textured backgrounds did not lend themselves to newspaper reproduction.  The performing arts photographers sought publication in the slicks, the large circulation national magazines (Vanity Fair, Century, Town & Country, Shadowland, Theatre Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar) whose duotone or gravure reproductions appeared with much greater fidelity to the original print. 

Hixon’s entry into the world of slicks took place in January 1917 with a full length portrait in costume of dancer Ruth St. Denis appearing in Theatre magazine.  St. Denis appears in exotic oriental finery, posed with a the practiced plasticity that made dancers the favorite of all sitters for artistic photographers, looming out of a dark background, St. Denis appears a creature having little to do with the quotidian reality’s of WW1-era America. Once this image appeared, demand for Hixon’s work grew rapidly, and in 1919, he became one of the first-call photographers for Theatre Magazine, placing multiple images.  

St. Denis would turn to Hixon repeatedly for portraits during the later 1910s. A second strong performer-advocate was Valeska Suratt, who first sat for Hixon in 1916 and did so repeatedly for the next several years.  A notoriously vain woman, Suratt Valeska Suratt was one of four women in show business during the first 20 years of the 20th century who controlled every aspect of her visual presentation and representation. Suratt is now best known as a silent screen vamp, a black widow in a spider web gown. Yet she was the most adventurous explorer of feminine visual personae on stage or screen.  She was intensely demanding upon photographers, suffering constant disappointment because of their unwillingness to fully enter into her sometimes outré flights of fancy.  Orval Hixon, however, delighted her with his willingness to visualize the new, the uncanny, the bizarre, and the ornate.  Looking at these images one is struck immediately by their Grand Guignol staginess, their disinterest in the growing visual language of glamour, and their audacity of pose and expression.  Glamour was cultivating an image of effortless and expressionless allure. The great advantage of stage performers as photographic subjects was their ability to project heightened states of expression in their face and body—an ability to rivet the audience to the rafters.  Hixon’s photographs explore the expansive gesture and the dynamic face. 

In 1920 Hixon moved into the Baltimore Hotel on Main Street, where he would operate his main studio for ten years, until the collapse of vaudeville.  During that time he entered into two partnerships—one with H. Kenyon Newman in 1923—another with James A. Wiese in 1926— to assist in an expanding business that would encompass three studios by the end of the decade.  Both photographer were talented camera men who followed Hixon’s lead in conceiving portraits of performing artists.

When vaudeville expired at the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Hixon's business portraying the larger than life creatures who peopled the orpheum bills evaporated with it.  He redirected business to general portrait photography and maintained an active studio until his eighties when his work began to be rediscovered.  In the 21st century his legacy has been consolidated by Jim Finley and the Kansas City Public Library.  

If Hixon thought his semi-abstract modern hand-worked backgrounds most appropriate for vaudevillians, David Baker of Kansas City's Cornish-Baker studio believed that the technique might provide visual interest to home portraiture and society shoots.

Cornish-Baker Studio

Located at 1113 Grand Street, Kansas City, Cornish-Baker Studio offered the pinnacle of cosmopolitan professionalism in portraiture: dramatically lit, dynamically posed, and perfectly printed images of the city’s citizens and occasional visiting celebrities. [Cornish-Baker: Nan Halprin]  Founded by A. B. Cornish and David Baker, the firm operated from 1906 to 1911 as a partnership, then Baker took over operation as a sole proprietor under the original name from 1911 until 1921.

A. B. Cornish had established a photographic studio at 1017 Walnut Street, Kansas City in the 1890s.  He was a successful portraitist in the straight style.  He took on Baker in 1906  because of a perceived need that he cultivate a more aesthetic style to complete with Strauss’s studio. Baker's ability with brushes and scrapers proved admirable, and the finest of his portraits made local men and women seem exception creatures inhabiting an expressive world. [Cornish-Baker: portrait] The partnership proved successful, but in 1911 Eastman Kodak enticed Cornish to Rochester, New York, where he worked on the faculty of the Eastman School of Photography and on the company’s technical staff until 1938.[1] 

Though Baker was born in England, his family had moved to Kansas City when he was still a boy, so his photographic education took place under D. P. Thomson in Kansas City.  After his apprenticeship, he moved to Chicago and worked with Count Matzene’s studio in Chicago during the period (1904-06) prior to Matzene’s turned the business over to George Baumer.   Baker had internalized Matzene’s aesthetic of poise, and his penchant of representing the bodies of sitters in some torsion or implied movement.  Baker departed from Matzene in his preference for dark backgrounds and electric side lighting.  He used Eastman Kodak Seed Plates and Artura Paper to secure the finished, precise look to his prints.[2] He also painted backgrounds onto negatives, following the lead of Strauss-Peyton.

Despite the studio’s concentration on society portraiture, it periodically undertook other projects.  In its first year of operation, for instance, it photographed Native Americans in costume from several western tribes.  (14 of the prints were deposited in the Library of Congress). It also engaged in school photography.

In 1921 Reginal A. Poissant DeCloud, a Denver trained photographer who spent 1918-1920 as a lighting specialist in Hollywood motion picture studios, came to Kansas City and with his sister Marguerite bought the Cornish-Baker studio from Baker.[3]  In 1922, Marguerite DeCloud decided that she and Reginald would erect a branch studio devoted entirely to photographing babies.  “They intend to maintain a veritable fairy-land, with nurseries, playrooms and plenty of baby atmosphere.”[4]   But the studio’s popularity under the DeClouds depended upon its lustrous bridal portraits taken by Marguerite.  In 1926, the De Cloud’s purchased Strauss-Peyton’s Kansas City studio from Ben Strauss.  Reginald presided over Cornish-Baker, eventually rebranding the studio as DeCloud circa 1940.

By 1930 only Bert Studio retained the signature features of the Kansas City style, with its backgrounds painted on negatives.  [Bert Studio: Althea Barnes] One had to look elsewhere in the midwest for practitioners of the style--to Chicago and Hixon's old partner James Hargis Connelly, or to St. Louis where Wilson Todd's Studio on Grand Street across from the Shubert-Rialto Theater became a temple of vaudevillian portraiture.  

Wilson Todd's approach to theatrical imagery viewed the painted negative as one of a number of techniques by which to make performer portraiture dynamic.  He used it sparing for tonal variety, particularly in two-shot images. He preferred costume portraits shot either in high-key contrasts of shadow and light, or full body portraits posed before geometric modernist painted background flats.  [Todd: Virginia Bacon]  Like Hixon, Todd when turning to a headshot could accomplish arresting results without backgrounds, simply by posing and the judicious use of electric spot lamps.  His series of portrait heads of West Indian actor Marcel Dill in "Scarlet Sister Mary" are among the finest headshots produced outside of New York in the 1920s.  Few viewers in the 21st century  could discern that these were black-face images of a white performer.  [Todd: Marcel Dill]  Todd's photographic legacy has been memorialized by Daniel J. Stankey in an admirable web-tribute, "Wison Todd, America's Premier Vaudeville Photographer." 

By 1933 the efflorescene of artistic theatrical portraits produced in the midwest was over.  For the artist manipulated performer image one had to look to Long Beach California and William Mortensen or New York to M. I Boris, Herbert Mitchell, and G. Maillard Kesslere.  

[1] “Time’s Change; They Are Aptly Shown by the Improvement in the Photographer’s Art,” Kansas City Times (January 1, 1892), 7.

[2] “George W. Curtiss takes a Partner,” Kansas City Star 20, 329 (August 11, 1900), 2.

[3] “Picture of Mrs. R. M. Snyder,” Kansas City Star 22, 302 (July 16, 1902), 1.

[4] “Peyton’s Last Appearance,” Omaha World Herald (May 16, 1901), 7.

[5] Omaha World Herald (April 28, 1904), 4. 

[6] Abel’s Photographic Weekly 10, 253 (November 2, 1912), 417.

[7] Ben R. Strauss, “The Stamp of Individuality,” Photographers’ Association News 3, 7 (July, 1916), 179-80.

[1] Obituary of A. B. Cornish, Camera, A Practical Magazine for Photographers 56 (1938), p. 185.

[2] “Our Illustrations,” Studio Light 5, 9 (November, 1913), pp. 20-23.

[3] “R. A. De Cloud is Dead,” Kansas City Star (April 24, 1944), p. 10.

[4] Abel’s Phographic Weekly 30, 759 (July 8, 1922), p. 31.