Long before SantaCon, Theron W. Kilmer found — and photographed — “A Real Santa” in New York City.
Although largely forgotten now, in his own time Theron W. Kilmer was aptly described as “an amazing person.” He was a distinguished physician, an associate professor of pediatrics, a writer, a lecturer, an honorary police chief, a major in the New York National Guard and, for a time, the fifth ranking rifle marksman in the entire U.S. national guard. As if that weren’t enough, Kilmer was also a highly accomplished amateur photographer who won international acclaim for his portraits, many of which are held by N-YHS in the Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection.
Born in Chicago in 1872, Kilmer moved with his family to New York when he was 10 years old. He began his medical practice in 1895, after graduating from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. In addition to treating patients (he specialized in children’s diseases), Kilmer taught first aid to the New York police and fire departments, devised the “Kilmer test” (an early method of determining whether a driver was intoxicated) and a test for color blindness, wrote three medical books (between 1903 and 1906), and was active in the Society of U.S. Military Surgeons and the American Medical Association.
Despite his demanding professional schedule, Kilmer also made a “hobby” of photography, “carrying his work in this field to the point where its quality was professional” (National Cyclopaedia of American Biography). Indeed, Kilmer’s portraits were so highly regarded that his work was frequently compared to that of Pirie MacDonald, a renowned professional portrait photographer whose work is also held by N-YHS. Like MacDonald, Kilmer was especially known as a photographer of men, using soft-focus head-and-shoulder shots to reveal the essential character of his sitters. Although most of Kilmer’s sitters were fellow doctors, he also made studies of certain “types,” including men with beards, African-American men, and such ethnic character types as “The Sheik” and “The Hindu.”
According to photographic historian Peter Christiansen, “Kilmer considered the German painter Hans Holbein his greatest inspiration and suggested that photographers would learn more by going to art museums than from reading photographic literature.” Notwithstanding this advice, Kilmer himself wrote a number of articles for photographic magazines, covering such topics as gum prints and paper negatives. These writings provide a window into Kilmer’s techniques, as well as his personal aesthetic — including his preference for male subjects. “While a woman’s face is charming and sweet to look upon,” Kilmer wrote, “nothing to me is comparable to the rugged face of a man.”
Kilmer’s work was widely exhibited, including many solo exhibitions, and won numerous national and international prizes. He was a member of the Camera Club of New York, Nassau County (New York) Camera Club, Pictorial Photographers of America, and was designated an associate of the Photographic Society of America (APSA) and a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS). Many of the prints held by N-YHS bear stickers from camera club exhibitions throughout the United States.
Kilmer’s compelling portraits not only reveal the character of the individual sitters, but also provide a fascinating glimpse of cultural attitudes toward ethnic and professional groups in the first half of the 20th century, and deserve to be as widely admired now as they ever were.