More object lessons

Photo by W. F. Seely, L.A.

Back in October I wrote about a mysterious photo in my collection of Hollywood photographs, one taken by Eugene Robert Richee of a plainly-dressed woman wearing a rather splendid hat. Photographer and studio names are given on the back, but the sitter is not identified; that post garnered a number of suggested identifications for the subject, including Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, and Barbara Stanwyck.

Since then, I have bought a number of photographs of “Old Hollywood” sitters, sometimes with the idea of having the photographer (where identified) represented in the collection; in those cases I haven’t worried much about the photos’ subjects. In thinking about these images recently, I thought they might serve as a test case on what old portrait photographs can tell us about their subjects’ identities, starting with the date the image was made.

Of the three in question here, I would place this unidentified actor by Walter Frederick Seely (1886–1959)[1] as the earliest, based on the pictorialist technique. (I am assuming, for the purpose of this post, that all three images show actors – this man, at least, is evidently in costume for a role.) Before 1930, the Hollywood publicity machine was still in the process of formation, and independent photographers sometimes worked on their own, or as part of a larger operation, or for one of the film studios – and sometimes all three.

It is not surprising, then, to find Seely’s actor subject being photographed by an independent photographer, one who will then, presumably, provide studios and the press with ready-made images. What is interesting in this case is to find a moody self-consciousness in pose and technique; identifying the subject, and the role, would square the circle.

Photo by Witzel Studio, L.A.

Before forming his own studio, Seely worked for Albert W. Witzel (1879–1929), whose Witzel Studio produced the second image.[2] This subject shows his delight to the camera; he is also nattily dressed. He stands out in elegant relief to the stylized backdrop, which wavers before our eyes. I thought, when I bought this photo, that I had seen one like it of the silent superstar Charles Ray (1891–1943), but I now think that this man remains unidentified.

With this man, and the next, we enter the realm of haircut and dress – the off-center part, the rounded collar, perhaps even the pattern on the tie have something to tell us. The man in the Seely photo is anachronistically dressed, but the latter two are shown in contemporary dress, with clues scattered throughout the image.

Photo by C. Heighton Monroe, L.A.

The last in this triumvirate is a man by C. Heighton Monroe (1888–1965?), formerly of Hartsook Studio in Los Angeles.[3] Like the Witzel Studio photo, Monroe’s subject is well-dressed; unlike that joyous young man, this one is decidedly sober. In his case, as in the others, I wonder what became of him, and if we might all recognize him in photos dating from the 1930s or later.


[1] See Vintage Movie Star Photos for more information on Seely.

[2] See The Daily Mirror for more information on Witzel.

[3] See David S. Shields’ Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (2013) for more information on Monroe.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

7 thoughts on “More object lessons

    1. The third photo looks a bunch like William Haines, a top box office draw in 1930, he was forced out of Hollywood for refusing to deny his gay lover an enter a sham marriage.

  1. I have recently been in touch with a newly found cousin who is in possession of a number of old family portraits, some of whom were unidentified. We were both hopeful that I might be able to identify some of them, but alas, though they look like family, they are as mysterious to me as to him. I had thought of trying to narrow down the time period by clothing, hairstyles, and photography style (all of which is going to require some research), and then, in the case of family groups, make an inventory of those present by sex and age. I am thinking that in this way, we might be able to identify possible subjects from the genealogical information we have. We will see. I have no family photos from that side, so cannot do comparisons. Perhaps photo recognition might provide some clues. Worth a try. I’ll have to find out if my cousin has already tried it.

  2. Scott –

    As much as I hate to say it, you might want to turn to social media for help to identify these subjects. I think of your pictures here as “genealogical portraits” that will tell much of an individual’s story – even when their identity may forever remain unknown. True enough too, is that sometimes, putting something out there into the social media vortex, well, you just might get something back.

    If you get a chance, check out my “Descendants of Simon Hoyte,” on Instagram under the user name “Old_Man_ Record”. I’ve made a bit of genealogical dalliance in trying to post photographs of some of my ‘family in common’ with Simon’s descendants, (and others) – both known and unknown. I mention this only as a tool or as a device to perhaps bring forth the identities of these three fine gentlemen of whose pictures you have posted. There are many different sites that might offer you a way to identify your subjects.

    While social media can be somewhat morally bankrupt, I am hopeful that my experience with it might help out in my own ‘discovery process’ – if it can be made to work for us also in a genealogical light.

    I love the pictures Scott – they are awesome and amazing in and of themselves – whomever these fine gents might be. Many thanks for sharing them with us.

    Best regards,

    J. Record

  3. Thanks to everyone for the suggestions. I hope to do a series on these and other photos, and perhaps in the process the unidentified men and women shown will reach other collectors and historians with answers!

    I should add that my colleague Maureen Taylor (The Photo Detective) would date the first sitter, by Seely, in the late 1910s. Could he be Fritz Leiber Sr. (1882-1949)?

  4. The Seely image brought to mind the romantic dramas of Daphne duMaurier. After reading a bio of her and her sisters a few months ago, I read or reread virtually all her historical/romantic dramas. I don’t recall the dates of the movies made from them, and I didn’t even see all of them. But would attempting an analysis of a studio’s or author’s screenplays be fruitful? Even the ones that never made it to the screen? It’s even possible that the theatre, rather than film, is another media to look for, as in this instance duMaurier was from a stage family. Her father, grandfather, and a couple of uncles were stage actors (so was her mother, but that’s irrelevant in this context). Your whole idea is quite fascinating, as you’re applying genealogical concepts to images we know aren’t our own families.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.