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Isabelle Lynch

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Still Performing: Adah Isaacs Menken Posing Between Stage Performance and Theatrical Photography

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‘All attempts to photograph me as Mazeppa have been failures. Now I want you to take me in eight poses,’ exclaimed notorious actress, performer, and poet Adah Isaacs Menken upon entering theatrical photographer Napoleon Sarony’s studio in 1865.12


Posing in drag against a studio backdrop and reclining on an animal pelt in a flesh-colored body stocking, Menken’s photographic session was premised on the condition that she choreograph her own poses in an attempt to picture her legendary performance in the Broadway Theater’s 1861 production of Mazeppa (figure 1). Picturing staged action trough the cinematic progression of still images, the series of eight photographs were taken with a multi-lensed carte de visite camera which captured multiple exposures on a single collodian-coated wet plate. Menken was one of the first actresses to consciously control the production, reproduction, and circulation of her promotional imagery through performances that co-mingled self and staged character.

Focusing on Menken’s photographic poses and the stage-like quality of Sarony’s 19th century photography studio, this paper considers the theatricality, speed, and instability of the photographic carte de visite, which emphasized action taking place between the frames. Through an interrogation of the pose as a processual practice and form of performance linking theatrical spectacle, photography, and the fine arts, I argue that Menken’s practice of posing—on stage and in the theatrical space of the photography studio—unsettled contemporary conceptions of the relationships between race, gender, subjectivity, and technologies of representation.

12 Ben L. Bassham, The Theatrical Photographs of Napoleon Sarony (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1978), 11.

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