Approved biography for Karl and Emilie Romaine
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)
Karl Romaine was born on August 1, 1906 and Emilie on February 15, 1908. They met in Los Angeles when she answered a newspaper ad that he had placed looking for a dancing partner. They married and worked professionally as Vaudeville dancers until the stock market crash of 1929.
By this time, Karl and Emilie were already using the camera as a vocation. They photographed fellow entertainers during their own last weeks performing, at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater and El Capitan. Afterward, it took them a month to fill the print orders they had received and it occurred to them that they might make a business of it, since they were out of work. They decided to stay in San Francisco and initially worked out of their residence, photographing only friends. Eventually, they took a studio on the mezzanine of the Hotel Governor, knowing that many traveling theatrical performers stayed there while in town. During the 1930s, they were most successful with dancers, having a good sense of what they wanted in photographs from their own experience in the field.
Focus, a San Francisco monthly published by Hirsch and Kaye for professional photographers, included short items on the Romaine Studio. It indicated that Emilie was the creative force behind their work and Karl was the technician. By 1936, they were also producing accomplished dog portraits, singled out for praise by the periodical Western Kennel World and exhibiting at dog shows in Portland, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara. Focus declared that their demonstration on posing and lighting a model was the best one at the 1938 state convention of professional photographers, held in Sacramento. By this time, the studio was successful enough to enable Karl to join the San Francisco Yacht Club.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Romaine Studio continued to produce hundreds of portrait and publicity photographs for ballet dancers, actors, and other performers. The business lasted into the 1980s, employing photographers such as Jitsuo Yamamura, who worked there for fifty years.
The Romaines were involved in pictorial circles for a short time in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Their work was accepted in a few exhibitions, including the Sixth International Salon of Photography, sponsored by the Pictorial Photographers of America in 1939. Coordinated with the New York World’s Fair, the show ran for six months at the American Museum of Natural History. Their single entry of a picture of a woman’s head partially wrapped in a scarf was illustrated in the show’s catalog. They also had a photograph of puppies with a dog figurine included in an invitational salon presented at the fair itself. This image was reproduced in the August 1940 issue of thePSA Journal.
Emilie wrote a lead article on photographing nude models that appeared in the San Francisco periodical Photo-Art Monthly in August 1937. In it, she indicated that she and Karl preferred dancers as models, since they were agile and accustomed to difficult poses. She also stated that the figure should not suggest inanimate material, but, rather, "try to picture your subject as flesh and blood—womanhood particularly is warm and soft, not cold; vivacious and alive, not static. Life is the spirit of her sex or she is a hunk of meat."
Among the article’s illustrations by the couple was their stunning Collar and Cuffs, of which the institute owns a print. This highly stylized image of a nude woman on her tiptoes was so skillfully posed and lit that it rivals similar work by William Mortensen and Wellington Lee. Its title comes from the saying about a woman’s collar and cuffs not matching, meaning she dies only the hair on her head. This condition surely applied to many of the Romaine’s female subjects who were in the entertainment industry.
Emilie Romaine died in February 1972. But Karl lived until he was ninety-eight, passing away in Port Hueneme, California, on August 17, 2004.
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012)
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission.
Date last updated: 1 June 2013.
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