Florence Vandamm (1883 – 1996)
Florence Vandamm (1883-1996) was a portrait photographer who photographed over 2,000 Broadway productions in New York. She was a trailblazer for women in photography in every sense – she even took one of the first mirror selfies in 1947! Her work has often been overshadowed by her husband, with whom she ran the Vandamm Studio. Recent efforts and exhibitions, however, have highlighted Florence’s unique talent, with curator Barbara Cohen-Stratyner emphasising that ‘we believe that Florence was, in herself, a photographic innovator.’
Florence was born in Britain, and originally started her artistic career as a fine art painter for the Royal Academy. She quickly realised that her talent lay with photography, so went on to open her own photographic studio on the West End in 1908. Her studio became a social hub for many stars of the period, and Florence was able to photograph many famous British actors including Sybil Thorndike and Fay Compton.
Rising unemployment and economic depression meant that Florence and her husband decided to move to New York. It was here that they opened the Vandamm Studio on Broadway and were recognised by the magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair. Florence worked tirelessly for Vandamm Studio and would regularly spend her evenings photographing actors as they left the stage. Her work included headshots of actors, crucial plot moments and cast photos. During her career, Vandamm Studios amassed over 50,000 photographic negatives for the Theatre Guild in Broadway, which have proved fundamental in enabling a history of Broadway to be told.
Florence’s technical abilities have been acknowledged since the early stages of her photographic career. The Greater London Illustrated, for example, remarked in 1911 that Florence was ‘…one of the few who use their camera as an artist can use his brushes’. Florence further proved her technical ability in New York, where she directed the lighting for the Vandamm Studio. Her ability to manipulate lighting to create shadows and capture motion, as well as the depth with which Florence was able to capture faces, has been remarked upon in recent years.
Notably, much of Florence’s photography was of women actors, many of whom were Suffragist activists. Florence herself was known to have supported votes for women. During her career in London, Florence exhibited twenty platinotypes at an exhibition organised by the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 2014. Through photographing many rising stars of the period, Florence created a space in which the role of women in the theatrical arts could be recognised and appreciated. Indeed, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner has described Florence as having set up ‘image expectations of strong women’.
The New York Public Library’s exhibition, Pioneering Poet of Light: Photographer Florence Vandamm & The Vandamm Studio marked a seminal step in giving Florence credit for the photography she created. A digitised collection of Florence’s work with the Vandamm Studio has been created by the New York Public Library, and can be found here.
By Anya Chuykov