Napoleon Sarony


Napoleon Sarony, Self Portrait

In the last three decades of the 19th century, an increase in disposable income and leisure time translated into a surge in the demand for entertainment. Chief among these activities was theater. As theater grew in popularity, professions within the industry thrived. Publicists, talent agents, reviewers and portrait photographers found work as actors and actresses became celebrities with fans who demanded to know everything about their favorite stars. As Ben Bassham notes in his book on Sarony's theatrical photographs, one journalist estimated that by 1878 more than two hundred thousand people made their living in some area of the entertainment industry.

At the same time, photography was coming of age as an art form. Napoleon Sarony, a lithographer and budding photographer recognized the opportunity presented by the ascent of theater in society and the innovations in modern photography and launched a studio on Broadway in 1866. Over the next thirty years he photographed virtually every star of the New York stage. Upon his death, it is estimated that he had more than 40,000 negatives of show business personalities in his possession.6

One of New York's favorite eccentrics, Sarony developed a rapport with the players and was famous for his use of lively backgrounds and having his subjects pose in colorful gestures. Since the average photograph required fifteen seconds to a minute for full exposure, plays moved to fast for the photography of the day. Sarony's photos gave audiences access to a performance that they had not yet attended.

The significance of Sarony's work was not realized by theatergoers alone. Bassham maintains that "performers recognized the important role that publicity photographs, available cheaply and abundantly, could play in furthering their careers. Photographers thus profited from and helped to create the cult of personality that was the cornerstone of the American theatre's greatest era."7 In what would often be mutually beneficial arrangements, celebrities were often paid to sit for a portrait, after which the photographer would retain the rights to the images. Sarony famously paid Sara Bernhardt $1500 for her permission to shoot her. The right to sell pictures of "The Divine Sarah" certainly paid off in the end.

Napoleon Sarony found his fame and fortune behind the camera, as the preeminent photographer of his day. In the second half of the 19th century, Sarony "succeeded Matthew Brady as America's best-known portrait photographer…"8 and set the stage for what would become a form of entertainment in itself, the viewing of spectacle.


*More on Sarony and his photographs can be found at the Penn Library Exhibitions page.

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