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According to the 1880 US Census list Jose Mora was born in Cuba around 1850. His father was a wealthy planter who sent Jose to Europe to study art, but his son became interested in photography. The 1868 Cuban Revolution forced the Mora family to the United States where the young Jose joined them. Jose studied under the popular New York City photographer, Napoleon Sarony. He opened his own studio in 1870 by taking over Gurney & Son‘s gallery at 707 Broadway after gaining business experience working for Sarony. He soon established himself as one of the most prominent celebrity photographers in New York. He ran a successful, profitable business, staffed by men who were listed by name (behind the scenes staff rarely got credit) in the October 1878 issue of Photographic Times - -H. C. Terrington in charge of the reception room, A. H. Atwood in charge of printing and J. J. Montgomery in charge of the dark room. Montgomery was hailed as Mora‘s "right-hand man both in sky-light and dark-room."
A unique feature of Mora‘s gallery was the many backgrounds and props he used to enhance his portraits. Steps, screens, windows and rocks created an environmental effect. Most of Mora‘s sales were based upon his celebrity image cabinet card photographs, usually of stage performers, displayed in theaters and hotels in the United States and Europe. His photographs were also distributed by the New York photographic supply firm of E. & H. T. Anthony through their catalogues.
Mora claimed to have never displayed his work at the numerous photographic fairs and conventions even though his studio was known in other places. In a letter published in the October 1881 issue of Anthony‘s Photographic Bulletin he writes to L. W. Seavey, the New York secretary at the second annual Convention of Photographer‘s Association of America: "Dear Friend ... I received your letter in reference to my not exhibiting at the late Photo Convention. My answer is, that I have never exhibited in my life, and neither do I expect to. " Yours Truly, J. M. Mora
Jose Mora closed his studio in 1893 for unknown reasons. He was only forty-three and possibly changed professions. His printing manager, A. H. Atwood, opened a studio in June 1882. His "right-hand man," J. J. Montgomery became a traveling salesman.
On September 16, 1926, The New York Times gave an account of the last days of Jose Mora. In June of that year he was found unconscious in his room at the Hotel Breslin. He had been living as a hermit since 1911, relying on other guests for food even though it was later found that he had almost $9000 in savings. Strewn about the room were scraps of food, the tub was filled with old newspaper clippings and theater programs, and photographs were pinned to the wall. His only companions were four pigeons. Mora was taken to St. Vincent‘s Hospital and, although his physical condition improved, his mental condition did not. A sheriff‘s jury found him incompetent, confining him at the hospital. He died only about a month later on October 18, 1926. The only known next of kin were cousins in New York, Cuba and Brazil.
Sources: Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene
William S. Johnson, Nineteenth-Century Photography: An Annotated Bibliography
(Kindly contributed by Rod Hoffner, Jan 31, 2008)