Benjamin Jake Falk was born in New York City on October 14, 1853. Little is known about his early childhood or education. After graduating in 1872 from the College of the City of New York with a Bachelor of Science degree, he worked as a technician for George Rockwood's photographic studio. Shortly thereafter, he operated a studio with Jacob Schloss while studying graphic art at the New York Academy of Design. He incorporated his creativity with his love of science by making crayons for five years before enlarging his 14th Street studio into a photographic gallery in 1877.
Described as a member of photography's "old guard", Mr. Falk was always seeking alternatives to the old collodion process. Credited as one of first photographers to embrace dry plates, he soon began carving his own professional niche as an accomplished society photographer. He opened his Broadway studio in 1881, which quickly became known for its stylish celebrity portraits. To become even closer to his clientele, Mr. Falk also opened a studio at the Waldorf Hotel (later known as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). During this time, his preferred lens was a 12 inch Hermagis. After a brief foray into stereographic portraits, he resumed his platinum portraits, which were printed on buff paper. When asked about creating successful portraits, Mr. Falk thoughtfully replied, "I name expression, posing and lighting in the order as they appear to be most important. The technique of the profession being absolutely under the control of the operator since the introduction of the dry plates, there is no excuse now for any but perfect photographic results. I have always made my price high enough, so that I did not have to consider the cost of material while doing my work."
Always a photographic trailblazer, Mr. Falk was the only portrait photographer in New York City to transition into color photography. He was also acutely aware that a portrait reflected not only the sitter but also the temperament of the photographer himself. After the 1896 death of Napoleon Sarony, Mr. Falk became the preeminent portrait photographer of the performing arts. He continued his experimentation with rapid exposures and lighting to achieve the most natural portrait expressions. He also developed a device that enabled him to product portraits at night with an electric light. The technique involved a 4-foot umbrella frame fitted with a white silk roof. Inside the frame were 21 lamps that surrounded a larger lamp. With the flip of a switch, the power generated form this system could produce an exposure in about two or three seconds. Mr. Falk also organized the Photographers' Copyright League in 1897 to protect photographers from unlawful media use of their reprinted images without permission or financial compensation. Four years' earlier, he successfully filed a suit against Heffron & Phelps Lithographers for infringing upon his copyright of a photograph he had taken of actress and singer Lillian Russell. The Eastern District Circuit Court ruled in the plaintiff's favor, and he was awarded $115. B.J. Falk died in New York City on March 19, 1925 at the age of 71.
2013 Broadway Photographs (URL: http://broadway.cas.sc.edu/content/benjamin-j-falk).
1904 Copyright Cases (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons), p. 171.
1901 The New Photo-Miniature, Vol. II (New York: Tennant and Ward), p. 179.
1978 The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. .227-233.
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