Triptych Head Shots

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
July 27, 2015
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Bertha Kalich

Bertha Kalich. Image ID: TH-25311

While curating Head Shots, we looked for unusual formats that performers believed would represent their careers better than the standard portrait.  Or, at least, catch the attention of the producer or theater manager.  Last week’s post discussed stereograms, which were common for landscapes and scenes, but rare for portraits.  In this post, we look at two unusual examples of triptychs, which combine headshots with character portraits.

The format derived from religious relics and paintings, with notable examples in medieval ivories and murals.  The photographic variant began to show up in the 1870s with family portraits.  They may have been made with progressive sittings.  The photographer would shoot the central figure, then mask it (in a circle or oval shape) on the negative and photograph the other two figures on either side.  In some cases, they were taken before a family member left home for military duty or immigration.   Since the central figure did not need to be present for the second sitting, triptychs could also be used for mourning portraits.  They linked to the tradition of painting or photographing families with portraits of late family members. 

Engraving technologies made manipulation of images more common.  The Print Collection has a great example of a commercial Disraeli memorial with a cameo portrait and slogan “Mourned alike by peer and peasant.” (ID-1108444).   By 1906, the date of the two Head Shots examples, half tones had made it easy and inexpensive to combine images and texts onto pages or postcards. 

Bertha Kalich was a star of the Yiddish theater in Poland and, after 1895, North America.  Here Collection is in the Billy Rose Theatre Division.  Her triptych shows her in two of her signature roles of strong, noble “modern” women.  She starred in Jacob Gordon’s Yiddish-language dramatization of The Kreutzer Sonata (1902-) and in the English-language production by Langdon Mitchell, after 1906.  It was directed by Harrison Gray Fiske, who had urged her to work in English.  The other play represented is an adaptation of Maeterlinck’s  Monna Vanna

The E. S. Willard triptych shows the actor in two melodramas—Rudyard Kipling’s  Man Who Was and Henry Arthur Jones’s The Middleman.  The smooth face in the cameo stands in contrast to the contorted poses in his character roles.  Willard is also the focus of the Picture Pictorial pages shown in the gallery as an example of steel plate engraving.