Vienna-born photographer Fred Fehl (1906-1995) began his career in stage photography shortly after arriving in New York in 1939. While working as a children's photographer to support himself, he pursued his love of theater by taking live shots of theater productions. He showed his prints to press agents and soon had a thriving career as a theater, dance, and music photographer. Between 1940 and 1985, Fehl documented more than 1,000 theater productions and photographed performances by more than fifty dance companies and choreographers, among them the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet for whom he became the official photographer. The Fred Fehl dance collection provides a comprehensive visual record of American theater and dance from World War II until the mid 1980s.
Fehl was among the first stage photographers to take candid photographs exclusively using available light. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, theatrical photography was carried out in a portrait studio, rather than the theater, with actors posed stiffly in front of painted backdrops that often bore no resemblance to the scenery used in the theater. Moreover, in some early stage photographs, the action depicted did not even occur in the performance or play; the desire to photograph the stars of the show in an appealing pose trumped faithfulness to the script. By the early twentieth century, photographers had begun to capture stage action in the theater; however, because of the need for long exposures while shooting, many of these early efforts to document performances lacked energy and immediacy. Fehl revolutionized theatrical and dance photography by using high-speed film that revealed the emotional expression of actors at key moments and captured dancers in midflight. Fehl photographed performances from the perspective of an audience member in the first row, bringing a new urgency and sensitivity to American stage photography.
In addition to the Fred Fehl dance collection, the Ransom Center also holds Fehl’s collection of theater photographs.
This digital collection currently consists of images of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Other companies will be added as digitization is completed.
Browse all items in the collection.