A History of Head Shots, and an Exhibition on Immigrants’ Tales

A Katharine Hepburn portrait used to publicize a 1950 production of “As You Like It.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s one thought visitors may have when viewing “Head Shots: Performer Portraits From Daguerreotype to Digital,” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

That point — as well as the power of the visual — is driven home with these images, sometimes the only thing a casting director has time to consider. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, small cabinet photos, or cartes de visite, doubled as promotional material for actors (like Edwin Booth and Ethel Barrymore) and advertising for companies like Flanders & Wixson Dry Goods in Denver. (The thin photograph was mounted on a card, which usually featured the advertisement on the reverse side.) As the years went on, techniques came and went, like photo montages and multi-exposure formats (look for Helen Humes’s head atop a vinyl record); the size of the head shot increased to the standard 8 by 10; and color did not become more popular than black and white until the digital era.

The free exhibition at the library is broken down thematically, with insights into trends and subjects. It’s a small show, but examples abound: photos of musicians and vaudeville performers that appeared on sheet music and letterhead (something that has resurfaced, now that head shots can be digitally embedded on résumés); Hollywood stars with sheen added to hair and skin tones to amp up the glamour quotient (a great example of this is an image of Betty Blythe); and markings on photo proofs denoting what to retouch and crop before printing.

Among the many highlights are several editions of the Players’ Guide, an annual listing of theater performers that can double as a game of “guess the era,” and items from the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line,” which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Actual head shots were used in that show’s opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” in which one performer confides: “Who am I anyway?/Am I my résumé?/That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” On display here are head shots that the show’s lyricist, Ed Kleban, used as a reference.

That character should have heeded the advice of Mari Lyn Henry and Lynne Rogers. An excerpt from their book, “How to Be a Working Actor,” is part of the exhibition and advises: “The picture must look like you. Not what you want to look like, your fantasy image; not what the photographer thinks you should look like, with extensive makeup and lighting tricks and fans blowing your hair. You.”

Consider visiting the exhibition on Saturday, when there will also be a free concert, at 2:30 p.m., by the Millennium Chamber Symphony in the library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. The program features works by George Gershwin and others.

(The exhibition runs through Dec. 30, daily except Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.; Mondays and Thursdays to 8 p.m.; 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, Manhattan; 917-275-6975,

Farther uptown, on Saturday, the Bronx Documentary Center is taking an on-the-ground approach to a significant issue in the current presidential campaign: immigration. At a discussion titled “Migrant Stories,” community members will share their tales of immigration. Complementing the stories is the center’s exhibition “Via PanAm — the Pursuit of Happiness.” The photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen has been documenting migration in the Americas, from Chile to Alaska, traveling along the Pan-American Highway. His images show not only the range of migration experiences but also their complexities.

(Discussion: Saturday, 6 to 8 p.m. Gallery show: through Dec. 13, Thursdays through Sundays, times vary, 614 Courtlandt Avenue, at 151st Street, South Bronx; 718-993-3512,

After all that standing and walking around, it would probably be nice to sit and watch other people move about. Complexions Contemporary Ballet can provide something on the more graceful end of that spectrum. The company is presenting several premieres — including one set to the music of Metallica and one honoring Maya Angelou — as part of its 21st season at the Joyce Theater. Yes, tickets for these performances can go for as much as $60. No fear — Miser has you covered: A number of $10 tickets are available for those willing to call the box office.

(Friday through Sunday, and Tuesday through Nov. 29, at various times; 175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street, Chelsea; 212-691-9740,

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