Out of Vogue?

When I first began blogging, a dozen yeas ago, it was my antidote to the curatorial curse – having more to say about an artifact than would fit in a caption.  Many related the research process behind my exhibition texts – captions, intro panels, brochures, etc. Those were NYPL staff blogs and can still be found on the Staff Voices section of nypl.org.https://www.nypl.org/blog/author/barbara-cohen-stratyner

My blogging this month relate to my on-going (but soon getting finished) research on the photographer Florence Vandamm, but also relates to past blogs. She was a pioneer of women in photography, having opened her first studio in London in 1908, using her own name (not initials or, in the practice of the time, the street name). My current task relates to an extremely important question – why she moved her successful studio to New York in 1923.  May 1, 1923 to be specific.  I am pleased that she did, of course, since she became Broadway’s premiere photographer and her huge collection of images ended up at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

There are interviews with her over the decades, but they deal primarily with her New York career. In one of the few articles that mention her London studio, she linked the decision to re-locate to the bad economic times in England, citing theater and magazines. When I first read it, we had not found many published images from the early 1920s and I was ready to accept the statement.  Since then, however, after vast amounts of reading digitized periodicals (thank you Hathi Trust and Gale Research Company!) and the wonderful generosity of the National Portrait Gallery curators who shared Xeroxes of 1920-1922 British Vogues, we discovered that 1919-1920 had been very successful for her indeed. So, why this discrepancy? Was it British Vogue’s change of editor? Was it her American husband wanting to go back?  Somewhere in the back of my mind was the description of the early 1920s as Britain’s golden age of popular magazines. Golden for whom? Were they not using photographers or not using her? The answer is probably yes and no to all of the above.

British Vogue did change editors in 1922, turning from Elsbeth Champcommunal to Dorothy Todd. In addition, the ratio of social portraits to performer portraits changed as well  Vandamm could relate well to the young women who were war widows (as she was) or who had been active in suffrage movement or war efforts who were featured un the 1920 issues.  But, as a Jewish woman, she did not have access to society and aristocracy available to rival photographers Lallie Charles, Dorothy Wilding and Cecil Beaton.

England in the period between the Wars was a split society. The image in popular culture is of the “Bright Young Things,” the British equivalent of Flapper Society but with legal alcohol. British Vogue and many of its rival magazines featured them and reported on  their activities.   But there were also the “demobbed” (de-mobilized), the returned veterans who could not find work – the British equivalent of the Bonus Army.

1919-1922 were also the years that Agatha Christie published her first mystery novels and short stories.  Having re-read Christie’s 1922 The Secret Adversary for an earlier blog, I could turn to its opening chapter, when Tommy and Tuppence compare unsuccessful post-war job search notes before turning to their adventures.   I  re-read the excellent introduction to the 2015 William Morrow Paperback edition by John Curran (who edited the Christie notebooks) and found an important clue/clarification that could be the solution.  When it was called the golden age, it was for fiction magazines and short stories were the featured content.  I remembered from all that digitized magazine reading that most of the stories ran with an engraved illustration.  More stories with engraved illustrations had crowded out the photographs.

So, Christie and her generation of mystery writers got published and Vandamm moved her studio and family to NYC.  Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair was still using her author portraits and within 2 years, Vandamm’s photographs became the staple of New York Vogue’s monthly “Seen on Stage” section.   Now, I have to turn all of this into a clear paragraph that links the London and New York sections of the professional biography.


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