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Archive for Sunday, June 23, 2002

Photographer’s images bring to life St. Louis of early 20th century

June 23, 2002

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— You might not think of St. Louis as a glamorous theater town. Wilson Todd's vintage black-and-white photographs may change your mind.

The silky, gelatin silver prints feature dramatic lighting, elaborate shadows, carefully posed figures, theatrical sets and all the trappings that we have come to recognize as Hollywood glam.

But Todd wasn't working in California. His studio was in St. Louis, and his dramatic photographs were made in the 1920s and '30s when dozens of theaters crowded the midtown area.

Actors, dancers and musicians including Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, Ray Bolger, Agnes Moorehead and others played here and made it a point to be photographed by Todd in his second-floor studio across from the Shubert-Rialto Theater. Rogers said she had her "first encounter with ostrich feathers" posing for a Todd photo.

'A way with his subjects'

Vaudeville was hot. The Orpheum circuit brought in comedians such as Joe Penner, who ordered 25,000 copies of a photo of himself with a duck, a reference to his signature joke. But Todd's photos always went beyond the straightforward; in Penner's image, an eerie shadow in the background creates a caricature of the actor.

We might not know any of this without the enthusiasm of photographer Dan Stankey, 36, who does commercial photography in midtown under the name Todd Studios. Stankey purchased the business in 1993 from Clifford "Marty" Martin, who worked for Todd after he returned from WWII. Martin bought the studio when the older photographer retired to Florida. Todd died in St. Petersburg in 1976 at the age of 82.

During the years Stankey worked for Martin, he heard many stories about Wilson Todd and his style of working. Though sometimes thought of as a gruff man, Todd had a way with his subjects, according to Martin, who still lives in St. Louis. After assistants had set up the lights, Todd would appear.

Stankey, shaking his head, says Todd "would walk up close and talk for maybe 10 minutes. Then he would step back, and take one shot."

How did such a gruff man have the sensibility to create some of the images he made? Stankey wonders.

Todd had come back to St. Louis after WWI to set up his studio. He shot most of the celebrity photos with a wooden, handmade Kodak Century View camera the size of a kitchen stove. It cost $10,000 in 1919.

Digging through the files

Though much of Todd's work was lost over the years in moves and a fire, Stankey found hundreds of prints in the files, along with 15,000 8-by-10-inch glass negatives and day books that record some of Todd's appointments. Yet many of the actors and dancers are not identified, and most photos are undated.

"It was very exciting," Stankey says of looking through the old photos. "I always knew he was more than just good. He was great. And he was a master printer," Stankey says, pointing out subtly textured borders and bleached areas in the old prints. "People who appreciate photography are going to realize how much work and effort he put into these images."

Stankey took some of Todd's photographs to the St. Louis Art Museum and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, who then was assistant curator of prints, drawings and photographs. "The first thing she said was 'Why haven't you called us sooner?"' Stankey says.

Since then, Lahs-Gonzales has done hours and hours of research, going through Todd's day books line by line to identify some of the celebrities in the photos. "So many of the stories are lost, but you can infer a lot from what people are wearing," she says.

Occasionally she ran across a name on an order and was able to track it back to find the name recorded on the original studio appointment. But much remains a mystery.

"I'm hoping people (who see the show) will come and say, 'I have this one,' or 'I know who this is."'

A change in styles

The meeting of Stankey and Lahs-Gonzales resulted in two current exhibits: "Wilson Todd: Theater Photographs from the 1920 and '30s" at the St. Louis Art Museum, which includes more than 50 of Todd's original prints; and "Image and Artifice" at the Sheldon Art Galleries, where Lahs-Gonzales is now director. The Sheldon exhibit features Todd's later advertising photographs.

The museum exhibit shows how Todd moved from the soft-focus, pictorialist style to more modern, sharply focused images.

"He began as a pictorialist, which reached its height in 1890s to 1910," Lahs-Gonzales says. "Artistic photographers wanted to prove that photography was a high art, so they disguised the fact that a photograph was a mechanical process."

By the mid-1920s, Todd left that idea behind and jumped into the avant-garde style of angular and clean compositions and sharp images. "It was very modernist," Lahs-Gonzales says.

When movies killed most live theater here and, with it, Todd's celebrity business, he went into advertising photography.

"It's really the history of St. Louis, as much as Todd studios," Stankey says of the two shows.

Lahs-Gonzales has divided the advertising images into several sections: Interiors, Objects, Glorious Machines, Glamour and Rockwell Moments.

"It's also the history of advertising put into a cultural context," she says. "They were made for advertising, but some are as dramatic as his theater photographs."

You can see his lighting skill in a photo of "Miss A. Caruthers for KMOX" and other portraits. Other clients were Stix, Baer & Fuller, Ralston Purina, Brown Shoe Co. and Scruggs Vandervoort Barney, for whom he did fashion photographs.

Stankey and Martin had promised to keep the studio name, but Stankey says that he had a dream in which Todd told him: "I didn't mean just keep the name, but show the world my work."

"It's my tribute to Wilson," he says of the exhibits. "My 8-year-old daughter asked me, 'Why are so many artists not famous until they are dead?' I think it's because we finally catch up with them."

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