Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Joseph Byron

Joseph Byron was an English photographer who founded the Byron Company in Manhattan.

He was born in January 1847 in England. He was born into a family of photographers. He began his career as an event and documentary photographer in the glass negative era.

Joseph Byron made the stage picture a fixture in the lobbies of American theatres and on the pages of American magazines. Byron’s suites of images from New York productions from the later half of the 1890s revealed the poetry of stage performances. He claimed to have made his first flash picture (illumination by controlled magnesium flare) on March 10, 1863 of an event featuring the Prince of Wales.

Ted Mark's Big Sunday Concert, Grand Opera House, New York, circa 1900.
Ted Mark’s Big Sunday Concert, Grand Opera House, New York, circa 1900.
A men's art class. Instructor William Merritt Chase is pictured in the photo. Photographed by Byron
A men’s art class. Instructor William Merritt Chase is pictured in the photo. Photographed by Byron

He moved to the United States in 1887, but did not begin producing flashlight stage pictures until 1890 when he photographed “Blue Jeans” for J. W. Rosenquest. It was not until 1895 that he convinced George Lederer of the Casino Theatre that he would profit by paying him for images to be given gratis to publishers with a copyright waver as publicity.

Throughout the first decade of his career as stage photographer, Byron wrestled with the problem of the artificial look of flash illumination and its eradication of shadow.  He experimented tirelessly to achieve more poetic results, using 11×14 plates, a fourteen-inch Ross-Goerz lens, and Wratton panchromatic plates. By 1905 he orchestrated as many as eight lights triggered in sequence for a second and a half exposure. While his earliest images, taken from the house, simply compassed the entire stage, he began taking his camera on stage amid the performers after producers began demanding between 15 and 30 views of a production.

Oscar Hammerstein (left) at Manhattan Opera House, which opened December 3, 1906
Oscar Hammerstein (left) at Manhattan Opera House, which opened December 3, 1906
Hudson Theatre, West 44th Street, New York, 1904
Hudson Theatre, West 44th Street, New York, 1904

Byron worried about the exploitation of photographers by editors wishing to appropriate and use images without payment or copyright. He joined Falk’s Copyright Protection League, serving as treasurer, and assisted in the formulation of standard contracts.  Any photographer could receive these contract forms for free upon request to either Falk or Byron.

Byron’s theatrical work occupied the evening hours so during the daylight, he roamed the city looking for scenes usable by The Illustrated American and other periodicals. He was an adventurous explorer of the city, capturing tenement interiors, industrial zones, pastoral yards, and riverscapes often with sis son Percy in tow.

Hudson Theatre boxes, 1904.
Hudson Theatre boxes, 1904.
Hudson Theatre auditorium, 1904.
Hudson Theatre auditorium, 1904.

Byron fell ill in 1910 and sold his equipment and archive of images to a rival Luther S. White who rebranded the images as his own. Byron’s son, continued the photo documentary business until the Second World War. 

A scene from the play "The High Road" by American playwright Edward Sheldon (1886-1946), in which a male character, played by Frederick Perry, speaks across a desk to a female character, played by Minnie Maddern Fiske. Photographed by Joseph Byron, 1912
A scene from the play “The High Road” by American playwright Edward Sheldon (1886-1946), in which a male character, played by Frederick Perry, speaks across a desk to a female character, played by Minnie Maddern Fiske. Photographed by Joseph Byron, 1912

Hudson Theatre box office, 1904
Hudson Theatre box office, 1904

Byron’s experienced frail health during his final years, but enjoyed notice as a pioneer of an important branch of photography. Luther White spent much of his career attempting to revise the history of flashlight photography in order to replace Byron as its patriarch; but little credit is given to White’s claims. 

"Uncle Tom at the whipping post", scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin, early twentieth century stage production. 1901.
“Uncle Tom at the whipping post”, scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, early twentieth century stage production. 1901.
pammyv02

I am a photographer currently living in London. Most of my work is in black and white because which I've found to be the best outlet to express myself. With patience a rather unique way of seeing the beauty around me, I enjoy creating a world that is unique to me.

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