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Rufus Porter Moody

Time Period: 
Nashville, New York


A native of Kentucky, R.P. Moody developed a love of photography in his twenties and became a successful amateur during the first decade of the 20th century while working as a picture framer on 5th Avenue in Nashville, Tennesse.  In 1908, on the advice of friends, he established a portrait gallery, the Rock City Art Studio, a venture that proved sufficiently successful to bankroll a move to New York City in 1913.  He announced his intention in the photographic press to concentrate exclusively on theatrical photography. 

He established his first studio at 243 W. 42nd Street, investing in the latest high intensity spot lamps with a flash mechanism and began working. A reporter observed in 1915, Moody "has devised a light controlled by electricity that gives him an absolutely instantaneous illumination, so bright that a picture can be taken in a hundredth part of a second or less . . . The electric button in his hand gives him his picture at any instant he may choose." Moody thought exposure speed was the key to capturing expression, and so marked a development beyond Benjamin J. Falk, the first proponent of the instantaneous capture of personality in stage portraiture.  Unlike his competitors in New York City, Frank Geisler and Ira L. Hill, Moody eschewed backgrounds, making lighting the chief determinant of an image's effect.

While particular repute lay in being identified as a theatrical photographer, Moody, like Frank Puffer, cultivated motion picture performers as well, particularly New York studio based ingénues. His dramatic shades and intense light gave a modeled look to faces. Cheeks and chins became his specialty, and he retouched the flesh to make the cheeks perfectly smooth—an effect that drew clients to his studio. Mary Pickford visited in 1915 sitting for one of the most famous portraits of her career, one of the few images that Moody copyrighted.  Most of his production was work for hire, providing performers or studios with publicity portraits. 

Within a year of moving to New York, in late April 1914, R.P. Moody’s wife of two years, Octavia Whetstone Moody, left him to live with her parents in Philadelphia. In the ensuing months, Moody sued the parents for alienation of affections, a charge Octavia denied vehemently in the press, arguing instead that R.P.’s possessive and dictatorial behavior drove her away: "I was compelled to remain in the apartment, forbidden to read poetry and good literature, and was forced to study arithmetic and books in the elementary grade. My husband acted as the instructor and said these books were of greater importance to develop my mind than reading fiction. I was forced to do my own housework and then aid with the photography. But when a fat woman, a rope walk, who used to go around in tights, to whom my husband rented a room, was continually in his company, I objected." A divorce was granted in 1916.

After the divorce he moved the studio to 1529 Broadway.  Though he remained a performing arts photographer until his death at age 49 in 1922, the fashion for Moody's photographs declined after 1917 when a younger generation of artful photographers captured the eyes of the national magazine editors. 

Sources:  Bulletin of Photography 12 (1913), 760. "Husband Barred Poetry, Made Her Study Arithmetic, Wife Charges," Washington Post  (Jun 13, 1915), 3. "Teaching the Camera to Make You Beautiful," Cleveland Plain Dealer (Oct 10, 1915), 72. David S. Shields/ALS