Born in Minsk, Russia in March 1870, Herman Mishkin immigrated to the United States in 1885. While working as a store clerk in the lower east side of the New York City, he was caught up in the amateur photography boom of the 1880s. He bought a camera and began taking pictures of whomever he could find to sit still.
Aime Dupont, the Belgian sculptor turned photographer, and his wife, photographer Etta Greer, moved to New York at this time, having established a reputation as a portraitist of opera singers in Paris. His images were a sensation and Dupont quickly became the favourite of singers performing in New York City. Mishkin studied Dupont’s images for form, particularly after talking himself into a position with Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company as a photographer-publicist.
In 1900 Aime Dupont died and his wife, Etta, took over the portrait business. When the Metropolitan Opera consolidated in 1906, it hired actor-photographer Frank C. Bangs as its first official photographer. Mishkin replaced Bangs in 1908 and served as the Met’s official portraitist until 1932.
In the 1910s the status of a portrait photographer depended upon the painted flats used as backgrounds, with Society photographers possessing the most and most elaborate. The greatest photographic background painter of the Gilded Age, Lafayette W. Seavey, had died shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Mishkin made arrangements with operatic set painters to supply his studio flats. From 1910 to 1920 only Ira L. Hill had backdrop paintings in New York that rivaled Mishkin’s.
While Mishkin’s studio operated as a general purpose portrait establishment, his contractual arrangement with the Met had him produce the lobby portraits and publicity shots for Met productions for a quarter of a century. His work as an operatic photographer is memorialized in Robert Tuggle’s 1983 volume, The Golden Age of Opera. David S. Shields/ALS
Herman Mishkin was the foremost portrayer of Golden Era opera singers. In certain respects, he had the most difficult task of any theatrical photographer of the early 20th century for he was constantly having to temper the hyperbolically dramatic poses that opera singers employed on the vast stages of Europe and America so that they didn’t appear ludicrous shot from a twelve-foot distance. His subjects were among the least tractable persons to instruction in the performing arts, and were generally infected with decorative sensibilities. That Mishkin was able to satisfy his sitters and adjust to the increasingly less ornamental aesthetic of modern photography was a testament to his tact and flexibility.
He began shooting CDVs and cabinet portraits of performers in costume in the 1890s and closed his career in the 1930s by shooting singers in modern dress in contemporary settings. While shooting opera stars for the Metropolitan, he maintained a portrait studio frequented by most of the significant performing artists of the day. His portraits of actors and actresses display a refinement and composure sometimes lacking in the histrionic costumed opera images.