Back in the early 1900s, Mary Pickford wasn’t just one of the most famous people from Toronto. She was one of the most famous people from anywhere. At the height of Pickford’s film career, at least one reporter called her the most famous woman who had ever lived. When she married her fellow movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr., it was such big news that ecstatic fans broke out in riots everywhere they went on their honeymoon. It was, according to some, the beginning of modern celebrity culture. And there’s no question that Pickford was one of the very first movie stars — her golden curls were a Hollywood icon in the days before films had sound.
So, as you might imagine, Pickford was the subject of countless photographs. She was shot by many of the best-known photographers of the age. But some of the most striking come from a man who has mostly been forgotten.
His name was Nelson Evans. He’s been called “Hollywood’s Early Forgotten Portrait Photographer.” He ran his own studio on Hollywood Boulevard (just a couple blocks from the famous intersection of Hollywood & Vine). But his career in Los Angeles was brief. He didn’t settle in L.A. until he was in his mid-20s. Just a year later, the United States entered the First World War — Evans enlisted and was put in charge of photography supplies for the air force. When he returned to Hollywood, he only had a few years left to live.
But in those few years, Evans made his mark. He was a pioneer, helping to invent the entire practice of Hollywood portrait photography back in the days before movie studios realized how important photos could be — movie stars were still forced to commission their own publicity stills. The Evans Studio was, according to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, “one of the largest and best equipped in the world.” Which meant that Evans could use backdrops, props and special lighting effects to create entire worlds.
He died in 1922, at the very young age of 33. He would quickly fade from memory. But his photos lived on. And some of his best and his most magical are the photos he took of Mary Pickford:
A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, images, links and related stories there.