Most motion picture still photographers picked up cameras at young ages, intrigued at how they could paint with light. Many yearned to do more than just snap shots in a portrait studio or for a newspaper. They hankered for excitement, exploration, eclecticism, all of which they found working for movie studios.
In the early days, cinematographers also shot production stills for films. By the 1920s, the division of labor between stills photography and cinematography was established, keeping practitioners of one from performing the other on the same production.
Studios also established the stills photography professional hierarchy during the 1920s. Those entering the field toiled in the lab, developing negatives, producing prints, setting up sessions, and whatever other tasks the head photographer required. Soon they would be promoted to shooting candid shots, then scene stills, and if they excelled, eventually portraits.
Donald Biddle Keyes’ restless nature kept him constantly on the move, and throughout his career, he jumped back and forth from shooting stills to operating film cameras.
Born in Chicago on Feb. 17, 1894, Keyes wound up in Los Angeles by the teens, working as a photographer for the New York Motion Picture Corp. He was drafted into the Army for World War I, serving as a first lieutenant at the Army’s photographic school at the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, N.Y.
Upon war completion, Keyes returned to California and film work, shooting stills for the Selig Motion Picture Co. and Goldwyn Pictures. By the summer of 1919, he was ready for new adventures. Keyes obtained a passport in July to travel to South Africa for photographic work on behalf of the Oakland Museum.
The Nov. 30, 1919, San Francisco Chronicle reported that H. A. and Sydney Snow, accompanied by cameramen Frank S. Wilton and Donald Keyes, were en route to Capetown, South Africa to join the Simson big game expedition. This expedition would spend two years collecting specimens of all the animals of Australia before proceeding to South Africa. The specimens would fill the new Oakland Museum to be constructed when they returned in 1921.
As the Chronicle stated, “Moving pictures will be made of all activities of the trip, scenery along the route, the killing of the animals, and the methods used in packing the skins for transportation to the United States.” Los Angeles had offered to build a $1-million building to house the collection, but Oakland worked to build a suitable home for the collection. Keyes returned to California by at least 1920, living in Burbank with his father, aunt, and sisters while he worked as a photographer
Keyes soon landed at Famous Players-Lasky Studio in Hollywood, shooting both scene stills and portraits for the studio. During this time, his work drew the attention of film fans. A reader wrote into Photoplay magazine in 1922 asking a question about photographs at the Lasky Studio. The magazine replied to address the photographer Donald Biddle Keyes at the studio, stating, “I believe Mr. Keyes is the staff photographer for the more important productions. Anyway, he’s an artist.”
Keyes shot images for Lasky’s big films like “The Sheik” and “The Ten Commandments,” as well as producing elegant portraits of stars like Rudolph Valentino and Thomas Meighan. He and photographer Eugene Robert Richee crafted gorgeous shots of productions and stars in the mid-1920s, ranking near the top of studio photographers.
In July 1924, Keyes applied for a passport to travel to the British Isles, France, German, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark for photographic work. He arrived back in New York on Feb. 4, 1925, traveling on the same ship with actresses Kathleen Key and Enid Bennett, and her husband, director Fred Niblo.
Keyes returned to camerawork in 1926, shooting three films with director Marshall “Mickey” Neilan, both for Paramount and Neilan’s independent studio. The newspaper states he was also assisting Neilan with technical issues in 1927. The 1927 Film Year Book credits him as “cameraman/cinematographer,” recognizing his diverse talents. Keyes continued working as cinematographer for a few years, including on Howard Hughes’ epic, “Hell’s Angels.”
Keyes tired of cinematography and returned to portraiture in 1931, opening the Studio of Donald Biddle Keyes at 127 N. Larchmont Blvd. The December 1931 American Cinematographer claimed, “Mr. Keyes, long a motion picture photographer, has always been an outstanding portrait man, having started his picture work as a “still” man. He first introduced the idea of a studio having its own portrait studio.”
After a few years, Keyes joined Goldwyn Pictures as a stills photographer, shooting scene stills under the name Donald B. Keyes. Restless again, he joined publisher George Palmer Putnam’s expedition to document the “barbaric” San Blas Indians in Panama, per the December 17, 1937, Los Angeles Times. The three-month trip would explore Mexico, Central America, and the Galapagos Islands “in a search of rare animals, birds, and reptiles.” Items collected during travels would be presented to California Zoological Society’s Zoopark.
Once he returned to Los Angeles, Keyes returned to stills work, joining United Artists Studio, working on Walter Wanger films. The artist also shot portraits. He worked independently in 1940, shooting freelance scene stills with various studios. The Dec. 16, 1945, Times claimed that Keyes was supposedly the first person to photograph Lana Turner in a sweater, and also captured Ann Sheridan’s first “oomphy” magazine cover.
The art world recognized his talent as well. The Los Angeles County Museum selected Keyes, along with photographers Robert Coburn and Scotty Welbourne, to serve on a jury choosing images for an arts and crafts exhibit by World War II vets in 1946. In 1949, Keyes served as a judge at the 31st Los Angeles International Salon of Photography.
Keyes joined Republic Pictures around 1950, shooting scene stills on many westerns for the next several years under the name Donald Keyes. He found time to serve as an executive on the Board of Local 653, the Cameraman’s Union, in 1952, as he had in the late 1920s.
Upon retirement, Keyes and his wife moved to Edmonds, Washington, where he died on Nov. 17, 1974.