Photo: Nelson Evans
Unlike the theatrical world, the early motion picture industry was slow in recognizing the importance of photographs to help publicize and sell its films. While Broadway producers hired great New York portrait studios like Sarony, White, Lumiere, Vandamm, and Moody to shoot scene and portrait stills of stars for newspaper and magazine coverage in the early 1900s, film studios, particularly those here on the West Coast, did not engage in the practice until the mid-teens.
The studios employed their own cameramen in the early days to shoot set and scene stills, with the vast majority of photographs possessing no credit anywhere on them. Stars were forced to seek out photographers for their own portraits, which they could then employ to publicize their work both in film and stage, as well as seek out employment in both fields as well. Early important portrait studios in Los Angeles that catered to film folk included Hartsook, Witzel, Seely, and Nelson Evans.
This photo of Ann Forrest by Nelson Evans has been listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $139.99.
Born in Columbia, Ohio June 6, 1889, Nelson Evans was the son of Charles F. Evans, a coal operator of Hocking Valley coal mines, and Mary Evans, both descended from ancestors who fought in America’s Revolutionary War. They saw to it that Nelson received a good education, including the Coles Latin School of Columbus, Ohio, Princeton Preparatory School, and Kenyon College.
As John Steven McGroarty describes him in volume three of his “Los Angeles From the Mountains to the Sea,” from 1923, “Nelson Evans made the choice of photography as a career against the wishes and desires of his father, but his achievements fully justified the choice. His photography was something original and new, and like the old masters he created characters. He took countless pictures of Mary Pickford, the Talmadge sisters, and many other screen favorites. For several years he did much of the ‘still photograph’ at many of the moving picture studios at Hollywood. It was in 1915 that he established his charming studio in Hollywood.”
This studio was located at 6039 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, close by to most of the film studios. Here he took gorgeous portraits of stars, mostly headshots, to be employed in their publicity. For a time, he also functioned as Triangle’s and later Mack Sennett’s still photographer. In 1914, Photoplay magazine commissioned him to shoot images of the actor Hallam Cooley at home, per David Fahey and Linda Rich in their book “Masters of Starlight: Photographers in Hollywood.” Other magazines like Picture Play, Motion Picture, and Harper’s Bazaar followed. Photographers that would work with and be trained by him included Lansing Brown and the Fox photographer Max Munn Autrey.
Photography scholar David Shields notes that Evans inaugurated the genre of cheesecake photography when he began taking full body, slightly daring portraits of Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties in revealing, leg baring swimsuits. These images began appearing in newspapers, magazines, and even cigarette cards, helping stoke a craze for sexy images that lasts to this day.
Mcgroarty states, “During the World war he enlisted and was commissioned first lieutenant in charge of photography supplies for the aviation service and was stationed in New York City. It was during this period that he made a camera which he prophesied would be the greatest camera of all in aviation use, and this prophecy is in a fair way of being fulfilled.”
Evans collected Old Masters and rare old books, and studied all religions, being most drawn to Metaphysics.
He died in 1923 at the young age of 33. His parents decided to keep his studio open in charge of his secretary Ruth Dowdall. By 1924, the studio was also an art gallery. The Nov. 23, 1924, Los Angeles Times states that “The studio is a memorial to Nelson Evans, the founder, who passed away some time ago, and all profits are to be given to some worthy cause.” As a photography studio, the space would exhibit pictures.
There was a possible vendetta against stills photographers in 1925, as The Times reported that a member of the Evans household called the police about “…a telephoned warning to be on the lookout for a fire at the studio.” The police began watching the property, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood on July 28, 1925. This report raised suspicions about a fire at the Vine Street Hoover Photo Studio a few days before, which partially destroyed the building and caused damage to the actual structure and negatives and caused $15,000 in damage.
On Aug. 14, 1929, a fire destroyed $25,000 worth of antiques, tapestries, and manuscripts at the Evans Studio. The fire began at Mrs. Louise Davis’ art shop on the first floor of the building, destroying tapestries, and spreading to Evans Studio on the second floor.
By late 1929, the family leased the facility for Sunday lectures by Dr. Jogesh Misrow, PhD of India, a “Master Teacher of Yogesha,” per ads in The Times. After a couple of years, the building became a dance studio for Muriel Stuart.
While sometimes forgotten because of his early death, Nelson Evans helped create the practice of Hollywood portrait photography along with other better known colleagues like Fred Hartsook and Albert Witzel.
Photo: A postcard of a Mac Sennett Bathing Beauty listed on EBay for $6.99.