This image is a professional publicity photograph of the young Pearl Bailey, who, at the age of twenty-two, had recently moved to Philadelphia and launched her successful performing career in the city’s black nightclubs in the 1930s. She went on to perform at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem and, with her stage presence, range of voice, and magnetic personality, became a star of Broadway, television, and Hollywood film, breaking many racial barriers.
This photograph was the subject of an exchange between Ron Tarver, retired Philadelphia Inquirer staff photographer and instructor of studio art, with an emphasis on photography, at Swarthmore College, and Woodmere Director William Valerio, in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue:
TARVER: When I look at this photo I wonder what came after this. If this is a publicity photo she would want to smile.
VALERIO: Especially as a Vaudeville comedy singer.
TARVER: I wonder what this is because when you walk into a room and you do your test shot without anyone paying attention, that’s when you catch people at their most authentic. This almost looks like a test shot. Then the picture that comes after the test shot is when you say “one two three,” and she’s smiling and she’s animated and all that, but the most authentic shot you get of anybody is either a candid shot or when they’re off guard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a room and said let me fire off a couple of shots just to get my exposure correct and you get some pretty unguarded photographs. This almost looks like that. She is relaxed. She’s not performing. This represents Mosley’s artistry because he developed this one and I think he saw the true Pearl Bailey as opposed to the animated Pearl Bailey. I think his capacity as an artist comes through in his choice to develop some of the images.