Jose Maria Mora was a Cuban-American portrait photographer active in New York City in the 1870s and 1880s. Born to wealthy Cuban landowners, Mora lived and trained as a painter in Paris. However, the Ten Years’ War forced his family to flee Havana and settle in New York City. Once his family moved to New York, Mora could not continue his studies in painting. He worked for celebrity photographer Napoleon Sarony, who taught him the art of painted retouching, an early form of photo manipulation. After working with Sarony for two years, Mora established his portrait studio. He became a friendly rival of his former mentor and contemporary stage photographers like Benjamin J. Falk.
Mora specialized in photographing celebrities from the Gilded Age, including actors, opera singers, writers, and New York City society members. The New York Metropolitan Opera and Manhattan’s high-society costume balls commissioned him to paint portraits during the 1870s and 1880s. Photographs he took of comic actors, burlesque dancers, and clowns were featured regularly in illustrated newspapers like the National Police Gazette. Mora’s work stood out from competing photographers because he used large-scale painted backdrops that gave the appearance that his subjects had been transported to exotic or fantastic locations.