Kate Claxton Head Shots: This Week Only

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
August 21, 2015
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Library for the Performing Arts is having a photogenic summer. Between Sinatra in the Oenslager Gallery and Geoffrey Holder in the Corridor Gallery, we have many examples of compelling images of great performers. We know their talents and accomplishments, but we can visualize them because something in their faces and stances spoke to the camera over their long careers. Head Shots is all about the photogenic—an exhibition that makes the visitor look at faces and postures designed to attract, as documented by the camera of that period.

We are extending Head Shots through December, but some of our examples of the earliest formats will be rotating out as of next week. The images in cabinet photographs can be damaged by exposure to light, even the dimmed exhibition lights, so they will be exchanged for other photographs of actors or images of other performers. The preservation term for this is “fugitive content” and we want to avoid that at all costs. So, today’s post will focus on the cartes de visite, cabinet photographs and stereograms of Kate Claxton, an intensely photogenic actress. Most of her remaining early format photographs are in character, so she will have to leave Head Shots for the remaining months.

Kate Claxton

Stereogram of Kate Claxton. Image ID: TH-03277

Claxton was a dramatic actress, working for much of her career with A. M. Palmer’s companies in New York. Like so many of her contemporaries, she became associated with a single role. At his Union Square Theater in 1874, she first played the role of Louise, the blind sister in Orphans of the Storm. The French novel by A. D’Ennery and Eugene Corman, as adapted for the stage by Palmer and N. Hart Jackson, dealt with two adopted sisters and their efforts to survive the French Revolution. Like A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel, it combined fictional and real characters and ended with a chase sequence to save Louise from the guillotine. If it sounds familiar, it is from the D. W. Griffith film starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Sensibly, Claxton had purchased the rights to the play and subsequent films and is now known in silent film history circles for her negotiations with Griffith. There is a commercial stereogram of Claxton with Kitty Blanchard as the sisters. If the pose looks familiar, it is because the Gish Sisters were depicted that way in the characters of Henrietta and Louise for the Griffith Productions. Its promotional text is extreme even for retail over-printed borders from the 1880s. It promoted John O. Shaw, Bath, Me [who sold] “an elegant assortment of Stereographics, Gold Pens and Pencils... the best assortment of Perfume in the City and a line of Toiletries.”

We selected Claxton for the display of early format headshots because she experimented with poses and outfits. There are close-ups in which her profile fills the carte de visite frame and full body images that show her fashionable garments. In modern usage, she “worked” or even “rocked” the camera. The blog’s key image exists as a cabinet photograph by Mora, NYC, and as a stereogram.

She is wearing a two-piece fitted walking dress, made with an overall graphic flower motif. She manages to command the high contrast textile (which might easily overwhelm others) and has arranged the skirt so that its bulk is behind her. There are additional cabinet photographs in this outfit, including one very unusual 7/8 back view. We are clueless about the footstool or ottoman and what is on it. Any ideas?