Albert Witzel, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Deadwood, S.D.-born Albert Walter Witzel possessed a dead-on knack for capturing the public’s eye with his vibrant, elegant portrait photographs. Witzel became one of the premier portraitists in the teens and early 1920s, influencing how Hollywood employed glamorous images of movie stars to sell its dreamy wares.
Born in 1879, Witzel and his family moved to Seattle in 1886, where he signed up as a photographer’s apprentice in 1894. Learning quickly, the young man eventually ran the studio before immigrating to Los Angeles, where he opened his studio at 811 S. Hill St. in 1909. His brother Charles helped manage the business.
Albert Witzel soon was recognized as one of Los Angeles’ top society photographers, with many of his images appearing in the Los Angeles Times, starting in 1912. The astute businessman quickly recognized the value of celebrities to help promote his business and began reaching out to theatrical entertainers in need of carefully crafted portraits to lure customers.
As David Shields points out in his new book, “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography,” Witzel “favored pronounced facial expressions for women… Furthermore, he had a penchant for typifying sitters into the character types of the old stock companies… .” These practices helped endear him to touring stage performers looking for dramatic shots to sell their work.
Around the same time, moving picture companies migrated to Los Angeles to film in the ever-present sunshine, away from Motion Picture Trust interference. These companies had recently introduced the practice of promoting the stars of their films, helping to create brand awareness among consumers, who flocked to movies starring their favorites. This star system became the basis for selling films to distributors and the public.
Witzel’s theatrical clients promoted his talents to their moviemaking friends, who quickly began hiring him to take their portraits. Film companies employed his services too. The Balboa Film Co. hired him in 1913-1914 to shoot portraits of their star stable, quickly followed by companies like Triangle-Ince.
In fact, Witzel’s photograph of Viola Barry from Balboa Films “The Sea Wolf” was the first movie star portrait to appear in the Los Angeles Times, running Aug. 21, 1913, with his byline. This was immediately followed by a portrait of Elsie Albert portraying the princess in the Powers Picture Co.’s Venus Feature film, “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” in the Aug. 27, 1913, Los Angeles Times. A Witzel portrait of actress Lois Weber from the Phillips Smalley Co. ran in September. His images often employed Rembrandt lighting and offered moody shadows and sheen.
Witzel’s work began running regularly in The Times in 1915, and film fan magazines like Photoplay and Motion Picture regularly published his work as well. Movie star photographs quickly became a regular part of film coverage by newspapers and magazines.
To maintain the high quality and output required for his film work, Witzel hired Henry Nealson Smith as his laboratory manager to supervise the retouching, developing, and finishing of photographic prints, per Shields.
To help himself relax outside of work, Witzel raised registered Boston terriers at his 1924 S. Figueroa St. home in his spare time. He also belonged to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Elks Club, Masons, and the Hollywood and Los Angeles Chambers of Commerce.
Witzel expanded his work with studios, occasionally shooting freelance images of Sennett bathing beauties in 1916 that were published in magazines and newspapers, and working on assignment for Fox Studios in 1917, photographing Theda Bara in a series of somewhat soft pictorialist images for her iconic films, “Cleopatra,” “Salome,” and Madame du Barry.”
In order to handle the increased workload, Witzel added new studios and employed retouchers like photographer William Mortensen and extra photographers like Otto Schellenberg, W. F. Seely, George Cannons, and Max Munn Autrey to shoot portraits. Autrey eventually became head of Witzel’s Hollywood Studio at 6324 Hollywood Blvd. from 1922-1924. Their work became more intense and exotic, emphasizing a glamorous star look.
The Witzel Studio downtown also handled one of the more infamous special photo shoots in silent film history, the one involving Harold Lloyd that forever altered his life. Lloyd and some of his gagmen arrived at the Witzel Studio on Sunday, Aug. 24, 1919, for a special publicity shoot. Somehow, it was decided that Lloyd would pose with prop bombs, and pretend to light some. Unbeknownst to everyone, a real bomb created for action shoots had been thrown in the prop bomb box at the studio after a special practice that week.
The Aug. 27 Wid’s Film Daily reported what happened next. “Lloyd was in the act of lighting a cigarette to the fuse when it exploded, battering his chest and face with damage to one eye, the seriousness of which has not yet been determined and shattering his hand. Lloyd was rushed to the hospital, where the thumb and forefinger of his right hand were amputated. His condition is now very good except it is impossible to determine the extent the injury to his eyes.”
Harold Lloyd did recover his sight and his facial wounds healed. He would craft a special glove with fake thumb and forefinger for his right hand, which was thereafter employed in all his films. The comedian performed all of his action stunts, including hanging off a downtown building, with only three fingers on his right hand.
A postcard featuring a Witzel portrait of Charlie Chaplin.
In 1923, Witzel was forced out of his lease at 828 S. Hill St. by the May Co., new owners of the original Hamburger’s Department Store, who wanted to make additions to their building. The firm opened a new studio at 1007 W. 7th St., run by his brother Charles, to go along with one at 536 S. Broadway. This studio occupied the entire second floor and the lobby of the recently constructed building, with new up-to-date equipment in what The Times called the “largest photography studio in the West.” The Witzel Hollywood Studio remained its most attractive, with the South Broadway studio the most modern.
During the mid-1920s, however, studios began establishing their own portrait galleries to maintain a firm hand and established look with the requirement for an ever increasing production of prints, as “Max Munn Autrey: One Photographer’s Hollywood” reiterates. Spurr left to establish his own studio, Schellenberg ended up at Universal, Cannons went to Sennett, and Autrey departed to found Fox’s portrait department.
Witzel and his staff of photographers focused more on special shoots for newspapers and magazines, like the Peggy Hamilton fashion features for the Los Angeles Times, and other select sections.
On Oct. 18, 1927, Witzel married for the second time, taking Marion Forbes Fairchild as his wife. The couple wed in a quiet ceremony at 571 N. Gower St., the home of her parents, before leaving for a driving tour up north that would culminate with spending the winter in Palm Springs. Fairchild was 30 to his 48, a widow who had been receptionist at one of his studios for several years. Witzel’s former wife divorced him in 1926 on a charge of desertion.
Albert Witzel died in Banning in 1929, with his funeral held June 4, 1929, at E. Clair Overholtzer Chapel, 1236 S. Grand Ave. He was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery.
After his death, his brother Charles shut down all the studios except the 7th Street location, which he continued to run. He focused business on portraiture for high school graduations, special gatherings, businesses and upper middle-class families. The studio eventually moved to 716 S. Bonne Brae St., and remained in operation through 1952.
For further information on how Witzel and his fellow colleagues developed the art of motion picture still photography, check out Shields’ gorgeous new book.