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Studio, Sarony

Time Period: 
Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, with regional branches

Founded by the lithographer and bon vivant Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896), continued by his son Otto Sarony (1859-1903), and other owners well into the 20th century as an agency employ staff photographers, Sarony Studio dominated the theatrical portraiture market during the latter half of the 19th century, remained a power in theater publicity circles until the mid-1920s, and a viable brand as a portrait studio until late in the 20th century.

One of the mysteries of theatre photo history is how Sarony Studio managed to remain a central player in the world of publicity imagery after the death of Napoleon Sarony in 1896 and the brief dominion of his son Otto Sarony, who sold the studio to Jonathan F. Burrow in 1898. How did Jonathan Burrow, who had been a partner in the lithographic company that lost the landmark supreme court case, Sarony v. Giles-Burrow Lithograph, convince Otto Sarony to hand over to him the most famous portrait business in the country? Yes—Otto cared more for sport than photography, particularly once the era of dry plate photography had taken over the business. And became clear from the sale of effects that Napoleon Sarony made late in his career, that the firm had shaky finances, requiring infusions of cash. Nevertheless, to sell one's heritage to the most notorious violator of his father's intellectual property rights seems something more than cavalier. Its seems Oedipal.  And then, in 1902 to sell his own name to Theodore Marceau to create a rival to the old Sarony brand . . .

As great a mystery as Otto's motives was the ability of Burrow to keep the business from bleeding to Sarony's already famous and established competitors B.J. Falk, Jacob Schloss, Aime Dupont, and Theodore Marceau. His success was due to a calculated strategy. Burrow became a specialist in female beauty portraiture--not simply the scopophilic eye candy that had stage door Johnnies drooling--but superlative visions that women themselves cherished. Burrow's cameraman—perhaps his son Ernest M. Burrow—generated a body of imagery in which the ideal observer was another woman wishing to view that emerging creature of power in the 1890s: The Girl, whether it be the Gibson Girl, the Girl of the Golden West, the Show Girl, or the Girl on the Flying Trapeze.

Sarony Studio of all the major studios was the one that retained the format of the cardboard back image longest. Beauty was sufficiently bankable to keep this one sub genre of image viable in the marketplace, resisting the rising tide of souvenir postcards of celebrities. The cabinet card offered a clearer, larger image, and one always wishes a better view of what is beautiful.

Jonathan Burrow in 1906 turned Sarony Studio over to Ernest M. Burrow, who operated it until 1922. In 1922 Edwin Mersereau took control of the business, and it ceased being an important source of theatrical imagery as it concentrated on institutional portraiture. Who the cameraman was for many of these images remains unknown. Benjamin Richardson, Sarony's chief operator, retired in 1898 when the Burrows assumed control.

One hallmark of the Burrows' reign at the studio was their disinclination to become public names themselves.  Except for a handful of images copyrighted in Jonathan Burrow's name that simultaneously bore the Sarony brand, father and son elided their presence, determinedly obscuring themselves behind the Sarony brand. None of the camera operators employed by the studio received credit either. Donald Biedler, who shot images from 1903 until 1911, left to become manager and chief artist at the George Studio in Springfield, Illinois. The one resonant name known to have worked at Sarony Studio was Frank E. Geisler, who from 1914 until late 1917 plied his extraordinary skills as a portraitist for the Studio uncredited. If there were not extensive documentation of their legal efforts to stop Theodore Marceau from selling images under the Otto Sarony brand after Otto's death, little would be known of the Burrows' administration of the company in the first decades of the 20th century.

NOTES: Ernest M. Burrow v. Theodore Marceau and Otto Sarony, photographers, Supreme Court of NY,  New York Court of Appeals, Records and Briefs (New York: Appeal Printing Company, 1906), 27-32. David S. Shields/ALS


Burrow sought out the most striking of the patrician young women of the stage and society. Some would become stars, others artist's models whose faces and bodies would become monumentalized in the civic sculpture of the Gilded Age. The Burrow images were interesting because the personalities conveyed in the images, with the possible exceptions of the Bessie Clayton and Lola Gordon shots, all entailed an element of interiority--mood, intelligence, spirituality. Whether in costume, drapes, or modern dress, the poise, distinctiveness, and attitude of the sitter was graphically projected. Most of the images led dual lives, sent to magazine editors as illustrations, and issued for direct sale to the public as cabinet cards.