October 24, 2002
I t was a unique collaboration forged at the turn of the 20th century. Benjamin Strauss would photograph celebrities; Homer Peyton would manipulate backgrounds of the prints by hand. The resulting images were atmospheric, sometimes borderline surreal.
Now, collector Stephen White has lent 32 Strauss-Peyton portraits from the early 1920s to The Jewish Federation's Bell Family Gallery for "Art & Artifice."
Strauss, a reserved Jewish man, built a clientele largely through Kansas City's Jewish community. When the gentile, flamboyant Peyton became Strauss's partner, he experimented on top of Strauss's black-and-white photos. The Strauss-Peyton technique of juxtaposing organic gestures over straight photography became their stylish hallmark -- so much so that the era's celebrities paid $100-$1,000 and trekked to Strauss-Peyton's studio, based at the Muehlebach Hotel, as they passed through Kansas City, then a vital thruway for the silent screen and theatrical circuit.
"People don't know who they are now," White told The Journal of some of the photo subjects, "but they were so famous in their day."
Some of the celebrities in White's collection, such as Mary Pickford, are still famous --or, as in the case of Fatty Arbuckle, infamous. Arbuckle is captured in a 1920 opaque on tissue-enhanced portrait that predates the sex scandal that ruined his career.
Many of the bigger stars were Jewish. A 1925 gelatin silver print of Al Jolson features an undulating wave creeping over his head from behind. A 1920 portrait shows us why Theda Bara -- who started out as Theodosia Goodman, a tailor's daughter from Chilliclothe, Ohio -- became Hollywood's first sex symbol.
Almost as fascinating as the images themselves are the autographs and hand-written asides by the subjects in the margins of these original prints.
Strauss and Peyton broke up their partnership in 1927, just before Mickey Mouse and Jolson became the first stars of sound motion pictures. But the products of their union have long outlived their creators. The Strauss-Peyton portraiture has taken on a life of its own.
"Art & Artifice: The Photographs of Strauss-Peyton" will show through Dec. 20 at Bell Family Gallery, The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. By reservation only, (323) 761-8352.