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Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection
[1885]-1942(bulk 1900-1942)
 PR 39

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Sandra Markham

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on October 28, 2015
Description is in English.

Scope and Content Note

The Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection spans the period from ca. 1885 to 1942 and contains material primarily relating to MacDonald's photographic career in New York. There are no personal or family papers, and no business records beyond a set of studio patron cards that hold limited financial information. The collection is divided into two series: Portrait Photographs (1900-1942); and Documentary Material (ca. 1885-1942). The bulk of the collection, nearly five hundred portrait photographs, was given to The New-York Historical Society on January 27, 1943, the 75th anniversary of MacDonald's birth, by his widow, daughter and son-in-law. The family made additional gifts of material during 1943 and again in 1946 and 1951. In accordance with his wishes as outlined in his will, all of MacDonald's negatives were destroyed within a year of his death.

Series I. Portrait Photographs consists of 494 portraits of prominent men created during MacDonald's four decades of work in New York City. The earliest image in the collection, of banker Spencer Trask, was made on November 26, 1900, and the last, of industrialist George Newcombe, was taken on April 18, 1942, just four days before MacDonald's sudden death. Each of the photographs is stamped along the lower edge of the image: PIRIE MACDONALD/PHOTOGRAPHER OF MEN/NEW YORK, with either black or white pigment applied to the raised letters.

The photographs are contact prints. They are in two formats and each is mounted on four-ply board from MacDonald's studio; the verso of each board is printed with a list of his exhibitions and awards. The smaller of the two sizes are 9 by 6 inch prints that are affixed to 15-1/2 x 11 inch boards; the larger are 13 by 10 inch prints on 20 by 15-1/2 inch boards. On the verso of each photograph's mount is a label describing the sitter and his life dates and occupation, with the date of the photograph and a sequential number. The paper labels and photograph numbers were applied just after the collection came to the Historical Society, at which time an exhibition was mounted and a small booklet was published, List of 500 Portraits of Men Made In New York City 1900-1942 By Pirie MacDonald Photographer-of-Men in the Collections of The New-York Historical Society (New York: 1943) That sequential numbering system has been preserved in this finding aid as the print's folder number.

While the MacDonald studio patron cards reveal a wider patron pool, the photographs chosen for The New-York Historical Society's MacDonald archive are predominantly well-known men in the arts, business and industry, education, government, and religion, a virtual "who's who" of important figures spanning the first half of the twentieth century. Portraits of government officials were made at various times in their careers, and range from presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) and governors (Charles Hughes, Nathan Miller, Gifford Pinchot, Charles Whitman) to sitting New York City police commissioner Arthur Woods (1917) and mayor George McClellan (1905). University presidents and faculty members from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, New York University, Vassar and other schools are represented in the collection. Prominent figures in religion include William Ralph Inge, the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, among a sizable selection of archbishops, bishops, canons, priests, and rabbis. The automobile industries are represented by portraits of founders Chrysler, Firestone, Ford, and Sloan; merchant families represented include Field, Hoving, Pirie, Stern, Straus and Wanamaker. Equal numbers of bankers, diplomats, jurists, lawyers, and railroad men, appear, as well as a smattering of aviators, explorers, chemical and civil engineers, metallurgists, and surgeons. But perhaps the largest sector of sitters is made up of men prominent in the humanities: actors, architects, authors, composers, critics, designers, editors, engravers, illustrators, musicians, painters, playwrights, poets, printmakers and sculptors -- American, English, Irish and otherwise. This choice perhaps reflects MacDonald's personal interests; though his formal education ended early, he was an avid reader and traveler and had, since boyhood, developed a special love for the theatre. The lone photographic luminary is Antoine Lumiére (1846-1911), a pioneer in the development of color photography, whom MacDonald captured in 1907 (at no charge to his sitter, according to Lumiere's patron card).

Most of MacDonald's portraits are fairly straightforward head and shoulder shots, ranging from the traditional three-quarter pose that he used with Morgan Joseph O'Brien (1907) to the tighter, more modern close-up portrait of Sean O'Casey (1934). Although artistic in nature, the photographs generally contain no studio props, furniture, accouterments or backdrops. Occasionally MacDonald and the sitter would insert an occupational clue in an image: wood engraver Timothy Cole (1915) holds a pencil in his portrait and violinist Michael Posner (1919) holds a violin in his; author Owen Wister (1915) is seated at a table with an open book; illustrator Percy Crosby (1935) sits at a drawing table. For those without props, presentation varies widely and though several portraits do reflect something of the sitter's stature, some others belie their patrons: for instance, the classic, confident and entirely appropriate "captain of industry" poses are used for railroad builder John McDonald (1903), merchant John Wanamaker (1909), and financier Felix Warburg (1913), while mural painter Ezra Winter (1938) appears very much a business-suited businessman in his photograph, and a painterly portrait of Thomas Collier Platt (1903) barely suggests a career in politics.

MacDonald's image presentation varies as well and defies classification by period, school or trend. He created a grainy, atmospheric portrait of Booth Tarkington (1919) and a sharply focused portrait of John Taylor Pirie (1905), managed both a fine and soft focus in his portrait of Walter Eaton (1931), and portrayed Norman bel Geddes (1930) in profile yet with his face completely out of focus. Perhaps MacDonald's greatest genius was in his use of lighting to create a certain glisten and gleam that made his portraits so notably rich. He captured clothing fabrics perfectly -- the tweed and satin on Colgate Hoyt (1901) and Marshall Field, Sr. (1903), the fine lines woven in Vernon Davis's robes (1908), for instance -- and found other tiny highlights that further defined and distinguished his work, such as the diplomatic cross on Maurice Egan (1921) and the wires of John Flanagan's eyeglasses (1933). MacDonald produced stylish work as well: he employed Troy Kinney's hat brim (1931) as a prominent design feature, and used Noel Coward's own shadow (1928) to make a double portrait of the writer.

The treatment of several of the portraits in the collection, primarily of those of artists, is also notable. MacDonald simulated a linen-textured paper finish by printing the negatives of painters Howard Giles (1914), Leonard Ochtman (1913), Will Low (1913), Henry Poore (1914), and George Torrye (1915) through a woven screen, while some others were exposed through what appears to have been a knit screen.

Only one photograph in the collection was signed by the sitter: Van Wyck Brooks's signature and the date, 1926, appear on the mount below his portrait.

Technical notes on MacDonald's practices can be found in various articles written on the photographer by his peers and coworkers, most notably "Pirie MacDonald As I Knew Him" by Louis Garcia (in The National Photographer, June 1951). Garcia worked as a printer in the MacDonald studio. His article includes details of the studio operation, from types and brands of lenses and studio lights to the temperature of developing chemicals used, all of which helped MacDonald to achieve his uniquely warm portraits with their beautiful tone separation and glistening highlights. Writings on MacDonald can be found in The New-York Historical Society Print Room clipping files, along with other biographical material on the photographer.

Basic biographical information on the sitters was gleaned from the collection catalogue created by The New-York Historical Society in 1943, as well as from the labels on the verso of each portrait. It was updated, simplified or condensed when possible for this finding aid; for instance, a man who served both as a senator and governor is now listed as a politician. Life span dates were added, when possible, for those patrons who died after 1942.

Series II. Documentary Material (ca. 1885-1942) is arranged in two subseries: Ephemera (ca. 1885-1942) and Card Files (1900-1942).

The first subseries is a grouping of paper documents and copy photographs from MacDonald's studios in Albany and New York. It includes announcement and exhibit signs formerly hung in the New York studio (probably in a show window), such as one that accompanied a display of portraits of Noel Coward and Alfred Lunt during the Broadway run of "Design for Living" in 1933. A pair of signs advertises that the MacDonald studio would remain open for a limited time after the death of the proprietor, after which all negatives were to be destroyed. There is a small selection of letterhead, envelopes, stickers, seals and various forms used in the New York studio, as well as several pieces of original calligraphy and graphic designs for MacDonald's Albany operation. The latter includes drawings by Albany artist Charles Selkirk (1855-1923) for corporate identifications; Selkirk created the Japonisme-inspired logogram used by MacDonald for stickers, and may have also designed his stylish and distinctive letterhead (Box 22, folder 500). A undated mission statement, calligraphed with a decorated first initial, titled "The Note of Distinction," sets out MacDonald's intentions for his New York patrons; the fact that it is mounted on artists' board much like a mechanical suggests that it may have been reproduced for advertising purposes. A single battered printed card exists to record both a portrait sketch of Pirie MacDonald by Waltman (possibly Harry Franklin Waltmann (1871-1951) and a personal credo which MacDonald inscribed below his image: "yes: its better to have Ideals, fight for them -- and lose -- than to be a Neuter!" A miscellaneous ephemera folder holds two promotional print pieces directed at women and another offering framing services.

Eleven commercial-quality copy prints made by the MacDonald firm are included in the Ephemera subseries. They were created for half-tone reproduction purposes and are stamped with MacDonald's credit line. An interesting single-sheet photographic print holds six miniature portraits of unidentified Albany residents presumably made prior to MacDonald's arrival in New York City.

The second subseries, Card Files, consists of six sets of 3 x 5 index cards arranged in three sections: Studio Patron Cards and Miscellaneous Cards, and Negative Index Cards. The first set, Studio Patron Cards, is approximately 2,800 printed forms that record information on MacDonald's sitters and the photography work produced for each. The cards are filed alphabetically by patron, and list: MacDonald's negative number; patron's name; date of sitting, patron's address; order information (date of orders, what was ordered, dates the order was finished and delivered) and financial information (charges, paid and unpaid).

Except for patron and negative number, not all categories are filled in on each card, although nearly all the cards do include the patron's address, the date and some order information. The first two digits in MacDonald's negative number (which are generally four or five digits) reflect the year in which the photographs were taken and so can provide an approximate date of an image if no other date is given on the card. Occasionally there is also a clue to a patron's occupation (for instance, the address includes a title and corporation or firm). Several of MacDonald's sitters were not from the New York metropolitan area or the United States, so their cards will often include a local club or hotel of temporary residence as an address.

The order information is written in an in-house code that describes the quantity, process and format of work produced. Most of the orders were for "WB 69" or "WB 1013" prints, indicating that they are 9 by 6 inch or 13 by 10 inch warm black contact printed portraits. A very few cards specify carbon and bromide prints but the sizes are always the same format. Many of the cards carry a note of "India" which indicates that MacDonald chose Indiatone, a high silver-content and expensive portrait paper made by the ANSCO Company. A letter of the alphabet (A through M, presumably referring to a specific pose) usually follows that notation, as well as notes for finishing the print such as "fix hair," "fix shadow of glasses," or "remove scar." In addition, framing specifications are sometimes included; "Whistler" and "Chamberlain" are two favorites mentioned. Another frequent notation on the cards is "Institute" indicating that a portrait was sent to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters).

The studio patron cards include records on the nearly five hundred photographs in The New-York Historical Society's Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection, a specially selected group of men prominent in the arts, business, government, and religion. The remainder of the cards reveal the geographical breadth of MacDonald's patrons, and show that he had a national audience of sitters that included men who traveled to his New York studio from smaller cities around the northeast (from Washington and Baltimore to Buffalo and Syracuse, and throughout New England) as well as the Midwest (several industrialists from Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, and businessman from Ohio, Nebraska and Minnesota), Texas, California and Hawaii. Typical of these executives might be John Omwake, the president of the U.S. Playing Card Company in Cincinnati, who had a sitting in early December 1922. He ordered nine prints (three each of poses "B" "C" and "D") at a cost of $173, which were expressed to him in January 1923. Undoubtedly there were good portrait photographers in Cincinnati, but Mr. Omwake chose MacDonald's studio and his multiple orders reflect that he was pleased with the results.

Two sets of index cards make up the second subseries Miscellaneous Cards, and their purposes are not clear. The first A through Z set of cards appear to be a set made of patrons included in the Historical Society's collection. The cards are white, blue and orange, and have only the sitter's name and occupation (i.e. Adams, Herbert, sculptor), and one or two unique numbers. One is MacDonald's negative number and the second is hyphenated (i.e. 20-5). That number's purpose is a mystery, but was perhaps a location code possibly for the gallery of portraits MacDonald maintained on his studio walls (see Box 10, folder 249 to see one of the walls as a backdrop to his self-portrait). A second and smaller set of cards, also arranged A through Z, are similar to the others. In both of these sets, the orange cards are recycled studio patron cards from the 1940s whose backsides have been used for the current purpose. These patrons do not appear in the previously described set of studio patron cards, so researchers looking to document Pirie MacDonald patrons not in the aforementioned set might want to check the verso of all orange cards in the miscellaneous card sets as well.

The Negative Index Cards are filed in three sets as the MacDonald studio kept them. The first set covers negatives dated from 1901 through 1929 but is not complete for those dates. The second set convers negatives dated from 1909 through 1914, and the third covers 1914 through 1942. Within the sets, the cards are alphabetically arranged by sitter. In each set, the cards give only negative numbers, patron names, and patron addresses.


Series I: The portraits are arranged in two sets determined by their format: boxes 1 through 17 hold the 9 by 6 inch portraits, and boxes 18 through 21 hold the larger portraits. Several of MacDonald's patrons were photographed more than once so it is possible that portraits exist in both formats. As an example, Walter Damrosch sat for MacDonald in 1919 and 1936. The earlier portrait exists only in the 9 by 6 inch size, but there are copies of the 1936 portrait in both formats. A cross-reference in Damrosch's entry leads the researcher also to folder 443 in box 19 where the larger portrait is housed.

Prints also exist for variant poses of several of the men. In such cases, a brief description of the portrait is given in brackets to distinguish, for example in the case of Harrison Fisher, a three-quarter pose from a profile pose. Six different portraits of Pirie MacDonald are in the collection, and each has been briefly described in the folder list to differentiate one from another.

Series II. Documentary Material (ca. 1885-1942) is arranged in two subseries: Ephemera (ca. 1885-1942) and Card Files (1900-1942).

The collection is organized into the following two series:

  1. Series I. Portrait Photographs
  2. Oversized Portraits from Series I.
  3. Series II. Documentary Material