The Hollywood Portrait Photographers
John Kobal and Hollywood Photography
from an essay by Robert Dance from Glamour of the Gods (Steidl 2008) ©Robert Dance. Text is for reference only and may not be reproduced without express written permission from the author.
Thirty-nine years after beginning his Hollywood career Hurrell was still at it - called upon this time to do the impossible - to make an aging Mae West sexy. No other photographer had a chance. Hurrell understood his camera's magic and he could see through the miasma of years and make-up to evoke again the essence of West's (once captivating) appeal. Make no mistake, Hurrell was approaching artifice with artifice, her carefully contrived illusion with his ability as an alchemist.
Following this auspicious meeting, Kobal and Hurrell forged a friendship, which allowed the young man to learn from a firsthand source precisely how Hollywood's glamour was constructed. Always interested in photography, especially pictures of his favorite stars, Kobal collected any images he could find. What had the most resonance for Kobal, however, were original portraits, the 11 X 14 inch silver prints that froze in time for him a moment in American cultural life when glamour dominated the movies. They were a tangible connection to the past and he gobbled up them up wherever he could find them. Now he had the chance to learn from one of the masters the secrets behind the magic.
Kobal's acquaintance with Hurrell began at a time when curiosity about old Hollywood was at its nadir. The studio system was long dead and television had effectively drawn audiences away from movie theaters. The nostalgia craze of the baby boomers was still a decade off. During the 1960s five of Hollywood's eight major studios -- MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal and United Artists -- were sold off to conglomerates, the men in suits having little interest in the history of the businesses they were acquiring. Desilu had bought RKO in 1958. Only Columbia and 20th Century Fox remained as independent studios. Kobal wrote in 1971, "At least the barons who once ran the studios were movie barons. Today they come from the oil fields and the stockmarket and couldn't care less about films." A collective insanity swept through Los Angeles during this period of consolidation and many studios shed treasure troves of publicity and promotional material created to support the films that entertained audiences since the 1920s.
Kobal first started seriously examining and acquiring Hollywood portraits and stills in the 1960s when this material was considered nothing more than insignificant Hollywood ephemera. Only a few film enthusiasts, including Kobal, scrambled and competed to acquire original studio photographs. Kobal did, however, collect better than the others, and in the end used his extraordinary collection in the service of restoring the reputations of the photographers who had helped create the stars in the first place.
As his collecting grew more ravenous and expanded into acquiring original negatives, as well as photographs, he persuaded Hurrell to print his classic images once again. Vintage Hollywood would come alive in the developing room as stars' faces re-emerged in the baths to be introduced to a new generation of film enthusiasts. And it was his acquaintance with Hurrell that gave Kobal the idea to look up surviving members of the circle of great Hollywood photographers whose accumulated work is perhaps the most perfect record available of the history of Hollywood's first fifty years.
A love affair with the movies began when Kobal was a boy in Austria in the late 1940s and continued when his family immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. He later wrote that "[Hollywood] exerted a powerful charm on the imagination of a young man used to living in emotional isolation." Along with seeing every movie he could, his passion for collecting was ignited and Kobal bought (and saved) fan magazines and started sending away for the 8 X 10 glossies that were distributed by the studios and delivered into the anxious hands of fans worldwide. Popular since the earliest days of motion pictures, these magazines and the flood of images produced by the studios kept favorites in the minds of fans and titillated movie goers, even those living in far away places like Canada. Magazines and newspapers kept Kobal up to the minute on the latest Hollywood news and gossip, and current with the latest photographs released. Like most fans of his generation, Kobal kept scrapbooks of Hollywood favorites, "pictures cut out of fan magazines; stars looking great next to slogans telling you that nine stars out of ten used Lux; ads for films, those pages in the front of fan magazines; picture spreads."
Kobal's first brush with the tinsel-town glamour he had read and fantasized about came when he was twenty. Marlene Dietrich was to give a concert in Toronto. For the first time one of his idols from the screen would appear before him in person. The anticipation was intoxicating and Kobal was determined not only to see the legend on stage but to meet her as well. The charm that served him well throughout his life must have been in full force the day he invaded the press office of Toronto's O'Keefe Theater. Claiming to be a reporter from Ottawa (his hometown), he tried to secure an interview. Impossible. In fact he would not even be able to go backstage after the performance. But he did get backstage by following a crush of well-wishers. There before him was Dietrich. Taller than the others crowded around her, he addressed Dietrich in the booming voice of youth in his native German. This caught her attention and after an ensuing conversation of sorts, consisting of shouts over the room's din, he secured an invitation to the opening night party.
The whole story of this encounter is recorded in Kobal's delightful collection of interviews with Hollywood's royalty, People Will Talk (1986). That evening with Dietrich (and the day that followed) foretold what would become a lifetime of making friends with many of the celebrated giants of the screen, especially the ladies whom he held in utter fascination and who became just as fascinated by him. Dietrich was the subject of his second book, Marlene Dietrich, published in 1968. Greta Garbo (1965) was his first subject, although the actress, retired since 1941, was one of the few Hollywood greats who never consented to a Kobal interview.
"For me," wrote Kobal, "the 'movie star' was always the most remarkable thing about the movies." And by movie star, Kobal meant the great faces that graced cinema from its beginnings, through film noir and into the 1950s. Like all fans, Kobal loved the movies, but in the period before video and DVD there were few opportunities to see old films. He shared with fans from the decades before he was born an insatiable desire to learn as much as he could about his favorites and consumed every tidbit offered in fan magazines and any other promotional material he could find. When Kobal moved to New York in 1964, and later Los Angeles, he was overwhelmed by the fact that television showed movies throughout the day and night, albeit often butchered to slip a two hour movie in a ninety minute slot including commercials. Here Kobal was introduced to more of the great faces of the past, many long dead, retired or now decades past their prime. Meeting the stars whose faces flickered on late night television became his holy grail.
Glamour was, as it were, the siren's song that drew Kobal to New York, Hollywood and London. Unabashed by his thralldom to the stars, he was sometime caught short when a legend did not meet his expectations. Meeting Ann Sheridan for the first time when she agreed to an interview, he expected Hollywood's original Oomph Girl of the 1940s, not an unadorned woman with gray strands filtering through her hair. Still, they became friends, and in the course of one of their conversations she told him that oomph "was just a publicity stunt with me." Publicity stunt or not, it was the vision that Kobal and millions of others carried around, and Sheridan was astute enough to recognize that she had disappointed her new young admirer. The last time they met, shortly before she left for Los Angeles to film a television series that was halted by her untimely death, was in a New York restaurant. Sheridan was resplendent, the movie star of Kobal's imagination. "You prefer it like this, don't you darlin'?", she asked. "You know, darlin', I did this for you."
Marlene Dietrich and Ann Sheridan were among the many great stars Kobal met and interviewed and, although he became both deliberate and strategic in tracking down his favorites, an element of kismet also accompanied him throughout his life. Kobal wrote of his chance encounter with Paramount star Nancy Carroll in People Will Talk and acknowledged the importance of good luck. " 'Excuse me, you're Nancy Carroll, aren't you?' I was standing in front of St. Pat's Cathedral, thinking of going in, when she walked past with the rush-hour mob. 'Why, yes, how did you know?' 'Because you haven't changed. I'd recognize you anywhere. I've got hundreds of portraits of you and I adore you.'" He requested and was granted an interview, which he claimed wasn't very good, but out of that afternoon with Carroll came an introduction to another legendary figure who opened the gates of paradise to Kobal. Carroll's daughter, Patricia Kirkland, who acted occasionally on television, at the time of the interview, was working at a talent agency that handled Tallulah Bankhead. "Nancy said, 'Call her, you'd like her.' You wonder sometimes. For instance, if I hadn't agreed to do an interview with nightclub comics Martin and Rossi to put Hy Smith in the mood to let me go through the drawer of yet one more filing cabinet outside his office, which is the one that contained the pictures of Nancy Carroll that turned me on to photography because I found myself fascinated by a woman I'd not yet even seen in a film, and if I hadn't met her, would I have ever gotten to meet Tallulah Bankhead? And it was Tallulah who unlocked Hollywood for me."
Once the doors of Hollywood were open to Kobal, obsessive accumulation became the hallmark of his acquisition of star portraits. He acquired single prints, small collections and when the opportunity arose a star's or photographer's archives. These images were after all an important currency of Hollywood. A successful portrait session could introduce a new face to moviegoers and pave the path to stardom. The careers of legendary figures such as Crawford, Gable and Cooper, Kobal suggested "were made possible through photography and would probably not have existed without". For these veteran performers and other stars, portraits remained an essential link to the ticket buying public who anxiously awaited new pictures each month. Studios distributed these images by the hundreds of thousands mostly through the mail to fans, and a selection of exclusive portraits was sent to movie magazines and newspapers to feed a gluttonous appetite for the latest shot. Long before the paparazzi snaps, which replaced the portrait in the 1960s as the fan's favorite vehicle of connection to stars, studio-controlled publicity photos chronicled the lives of stars on screen and off. Although these might seem artificial in contrast to the lively intrusion of the rapid fire triggers of today's digital cameras, they recorded an era when fans looked up to the stars as templates of manners and fashion.
All Hollywood photography fell under the domain of the studio's publicity departments and every photograph taken served, in one way or another, the promotion of a film or star and, by association, the studio's brand. As Gloria Swanson told Kobal in 1964, "Audiences make stars, either they like you or they don't." Once a man or woman emerged as a star, the studios insured that the public was saturated with images of favorites. In 1928, if we can believe industry reports, fans sent stars something in the range of 32,500,000 fan letters, the majority requesting a photograph. Even if this number is widely exaggerated (and it might not be) an astonishing number of letters were received by the studios and a huge quantity of photographs was sent in reply. Shirley Vance Martin one of Hollywood's earliest still photographers wrote in 1928 that an actress "knowing the value to herself of still pictures frequently plac[ed] single orders of 50,000 and 100,000 prints from one negative, all to be sent to admirers."
Studio portraits taken at MGM and Paramount were available in the greatest numbers as Hollywood's top two studios competed with one another for stars and publicity. Kobal may not have consciously selected MGM as his area of greatest interest, but the combination of availability of images and the coincidence of his relationships with George Hurrell and especially Clarence Sinclair Bull gave him an unprecedented access to MGM material. This resulted in Kobal acquiring a practically encyclopedic collection of portraits of MGM stars and featured players. There might also have been something different about MGM photographs, as longtime studio photographer Bud Graybill suggests, "One thing about MGM, though, was that the idea behind the stars was to make them more glamorous, more remote, not so accessible."
As Kobal met one great lady after the next from Hollywood's glory days and assiduously collected the portraits that helped each become a star, he started to understand the complexity of not only creating, but sustaining, glamour. In a typical Kobal turn of phrase he noted, "Glamour had been sparks thrown off by the giants in their play, and it was those electrical flashes that made them fascinating." Discussing portraiture with Kobal, one of those giants, Loretta Young, recounted, "We all thought we were gorgeous because by the time they finished with us we were gorgeous." Young was, perhaps, being unnecessarily modest, but it is true that even the most beautiful actress received from the hands of her photographer an extra polish and shimmer. "The individuals who were the source of the sparks" according to Kobal, "could never be manufactured, but they had been harnessed to burn as a flame which was controlled by the studio."
This did not occur accidentally or haphazardly. "What happened in the galleries" wrote Kobal, "was an extraordinary thing, something that was beyond the ken of the studios and owed nothing to contracts, scripts or the publicity department." Performers worked as hard, or as Kobal saw it, perhaps even harder, in the portrait studio than on the set. "To achieve the effects of the great portraits, it was necessary for the sitters to reach a state of trust with the photographer so total that they would unconsciously reveal the very hunger that had driven them to the place where they now found themselves." "I photographed better than I looked," Crawford told Kobal, "so it was easy for me...I let myself go before the camera. I mean, you can't photograph a dead cat. You have to offer something." Greta Garbo, whose languid style belies words like "hunger" and "driven", was, nevertheless, as great a portrait subject as she was a film actress. Kobal would have us understand that whatever it was that made Garbo Hollywood's greatest film star was also working at full throttle in the portrait studio. Katharine Hepburn put it succinctly, "If you are in the business of being photographed, you must like to have your picture taken, otherwise you shouldn't be doing it. It's part of your job."
Although movie stars were catnip to Kobal, after meeting Hurrell he became almost as voracious in locating and interviewing Hollywood photographers. By the 1970s a majority of the photographers who had worked in the twenties and thirties, like their subjects, were retired and a few had died. What made Kobal's task even more complicated was the issue of photographer's credit that surrounded studio photography. While many portraits were embossed or stamped with the photographer's name, scene-stills were almost never credited. Slowly, and later frantically, Kobal set about attempting to discover just who had taken what picture. Kobal did not meet everyone who shot portraits and stills in Hollywood but he was the first who tried to make sense of their important contribution to movie-land history. In his quest to discover the whereabouts of the surviving stillsmen Kobal came to know, along with Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Robert Coburn, William Walling, Ted Allan and Clarence Sinclair Bull. Each would share his memories and print from his negatives. In return Kobal started what became his most important work -- publishing the anthologies of the photographers' work that resuscitated forgotten careers.
Along with taking the star portraits, studio photographers recorded every aspect of a film's production and followed the players off screen as well as on. "How many movies...," wrote Kobal, "had I first seen and never forgotten because of the still man's art?" Stills traced the continuity of filming and are the principle document for the thousands of lost silent films. Stills were also a principle marketing tool for the studios and usually served as the basis for lobby cards and posters. Stills are often the images we conjure up when we remember our favorite moments from Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. Katharine Hepburn is an example of one actress who respected the stills' photographers and helped whenever she could. "I used to pose for them in the scene and off the set because of my interest in stills. Otherwise the poor man on the set, they'd be telling him, 'Oh, for God's sake, you don't want a still of that! We can't wait for a still.' But I always used to encourage the still man and I'd protect him."
Kobal recognized the important role studio photographers had in developing the images of the stars and chronicled this previously ignored aspect of film history in a succession of books beginning with Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Photos of Stars 1926-1949 published in 1976. His most important work, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers (1980), was the first serious systematic study of the genre and had the added bonus of being both magnificently illustrated and sumptuously produced. In that book he charted the terrain of Hollywood glamour and provided glimpses of the (mostly) ladies who sat before the cameras and the workings of the (mostly) men who created the illusions. In total Kobal authored, co-authored or edited thirty-three books, many illustrated from his own holdings.
When he acquired a large collection of original negatives taken by Nelson Evans, they formed the basis for his book Hollywood: The Years of Innocence (1985). His friendship with Clarence Sinclair Bull, along with the treasure trove of Bull's prints and negatives he had collected, formed the foundation of the book and exhibition The Man Who Shot Garbo (1989). Collaborating with others, Kobal turned to the best film writers and critics such as Kevin Brownlow (Hollywood: The Pioneers,1979), Raymond Durgnat (Sexual Alienation in the Cinema, 1972), Terence Pepper (The Man Who Shot Garbo, 1989) and John Russell Taylor (Portraits of the British Cinema: Sixty Glorious Years 1925-1985, 1985). Following his books on Garbo and Dietrich he wrote two more star biographies, Marilyn Monroe (1974) and Rita Hayworth: the Time, the Place and the Woman (1977). In particular, Kobal's book on Hayworth is an especially insightful and sensitive addition to the large corpus of star biographies that proliferate. His ebullient personality - almost everyone liked him - allowed Kobal to become the impresario of the history of Hollywood photography. In addition to writing books, he served as general editor of (and contributor to) an excellent pictorial history of stars (Cooper (1985), Bergman (1985), Gable (1986), Crawford, (1986)) engaging writers such as Richard Schickel and James Card to write essays for individual volumes. Along with writing, Kobal curated exhibitions of Hollywood photographs and built one of the pre-eminent portrait and film-still libraries that continues today as the Kobal Collection.
Kobal was the first to organize museum shows devoted to Hollywood portraiture. His inaugural effort was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1974, a show he described as "the first exhibition of the Hollywood group." This was followed by shows he mounted at The Museum of Modern Art (New York), as well as the National Portrait Galleries in Washington and London. The first museum exhibition devoted to the career of one Hollywood photographer was The Man Who Shot Garbo, a monographic exhibition on Clarence Sinclair Bull that opened at the National Portrait Gallery (London) in 1989. It is apt that Bull's career should be the first thus to be explored because no photographer shot as many famous Hollywood faces. Katharine Hepburn wrote the foreword to the accompanying eponymously titled book, The Man Who Shot Garbo. She called Bull, "one of the greats" and ended her comments with: "Clarence Bull! And the National Portrait Gallery! WOW!"
Bull's tenure at MGM, 1924-1961, matched the period now defined by the old chestnut, Hollywood's Golden Age. There is no question that it was the golden age of Hollywood portraiture. The year Bull retired, 1961, a new sort of photography was beginning to creep into the mainstream of studio film promotion and the Hollywood press. The candid would soon replace the portrait as the type of image fans most wanted to see. Magazines started publishing snaps of Elizabeth Taylor between planes and yachts, and Greta Garbo as seen beneath a floppy hat through a telephoto lens. Is it a coincidence that Bull left MGM the year Fellini's La Dolce Vita introduced to the world the character Paparazzo, and the paparazzi were born?
Kobal recognized this shift in attitude toward Hollywood photography and largely limited his collecting to work created before 1960. He identified the years 1925-1940 as the scope of his book The Art of the Great Hollywood Photographers and argued that it is from those years that the greatest innovations took place. "After 1939," wrote Kobal "...[the] effects of fine photography still lingered on, even as film got faster, lenses sharper, cameras more manageable, and negatives smaller, but by the beginning of the 1940s, much of the great work was over." In earlier books Kobal had chronicled Hollywood photography from the 1940s and 1950s, including the pioneering use of color, but after that decade he was largely silent. The paparazzi held no allure in the Hollywood fantasy so perfectly described by Kobal.
The Hollywood Studio Photographers
The cinema's glamour machine that takes waitresses, debutantes, actresses, school-girls and their masculine parallels and by adroit veneering makes of them the dream children of the silver screen is a complex lot of wheels and cams. One small unit is hidden away on every lot. Its product thunders from newspaper and magazine pages, from billboards and theatre lobbies. Its prime purpose is to make the customer go to the ticket window and lay down money. It must give the appearance of genius to very ordinary people. It must conceal physical defects and give the illusion of beauty and personality should none exist. It must restore youth where age has made its rounds. It must give warmth to neutral or rigid features. It is, in short, the still department.
D.V.C., The New York Times, September 6, 1936
Clarence Sinclair Bull's long association as a photographer with the studio that would become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began when producer Samuel Goldwyn hired him in 1919. Managing to survive the commotion of the consolidation of the Hollywood studios in the early and mid 1920s, Bull found himself at the helm of MGM's stills department when the studio was formed in 1924 and stayed there until retiring in 1961. The enormity of MGM's output of films in the 1920s -- they advertised a new feature every week -- saw Bull's domain grow. He was responsible for managing MGM's staff of photographers and the large support crew of technicians needed to develop, re-touch print and collate the hundreds of thousands of prints distributed annually by MGM's publicity department. At least one photograph from the 1920s shows Bull with nine stillsmen who juggled the task of shooting photos on as many as a dozen films that might be concurrently in production. At MGM, like the other studios, these men, and it was almost an exclusively male profession, worked six days a week and often long hours each day. Generally one photographer was assigned to a production and as filming was underway, he would document each scene using an 8 X 10 view camera. These cameras not only had lenses with sharp resolution, but contact prints could be made from the negatives quickly and in enormous quantities. The stills made for each film were numbered sequentially and gathered together in a book. Still photographers also created the images used for poster art, lobby cards and other forms of advertising conceived by imaginative publicity chiefs and their staffs.
John Kobal developed a close relationship with Bull and his wife Jeanne, and one result of the time they spent together is that we know more about Bull's life and career than practically any other Hollywood photographer. Kobal not only collected Bull's photographs and negatives and quizzed him endlessly about studio life, but he also inherited Bull's scrapbooks and albums of photographs including work that had nothing to do with Hollywood.
Bull took portraits throughout the 1920s although administrative duties curtailed (but did not eliminate) his availability for time-consuming gallery sessions, especially after Ruth Harriet Louise was hired in 1925 as MGM's portrait photographer. This was not a demotion for Bull, as Louise reported directly to Pete Smith, the head of publicity, and Bull's duties remained unchanged. Still, Louise and Bull seem not to have gotten along and he never mentioned her in interviews or his writings after she left MGM in late 1929. Louise's work, however, did influence Bull, who started to emulate her soft-focused pictorialism in 1927. Perhaps challenged by Louise's talent and craft, by the end of the 1920s Bull had matured as a photographer. Though sometimes outshone by Louise in the late 1920s (and later by his colleague Hurrell in the early 1930s), at his best Bull was equal to both. Bud Graybill, who shot stills under Bull's supervision for over twenty years starting in the mid 1930s described him in a letter to Kobal (dated January 29, 1978) as "the quintessence of photographers." "His negatives were near perfect in exposure...the imaginative work he did over a period of roughly 40 years was never to be topped." After Louise left MGM at the end of 1929, Bull distinguished himself as Garbo's exclusive photographer, which must have made him the envy of his peers regardless of studio.
Chances are if you have seen a portrait of Greta Garbo other than Edward Steichen's iconic image, it is the work of Bull. With the exception of one session, Bull and the reclusive actress worked together exclusively in the portrait studio from 1929 to 1941 and their collaboration resulted in a body of imagery unmatched in Hollywood photography. Reminiscing with Kobal, Bull spoke of Garbo's extraordinary concentration and described her working methods as "businesslike." She was "his easiest subject," surprising given Garbo's status as the studio's biggest star. Garbo was one of Kobal's favorites and he took care to understand her sittings with Bull and the way Bull carefully shaped her image through the years. Kobal worked with Bull to produce a limited edition portfolio of five Garbo photographs printed under Bull's supervision from his original negatives. Bull died in 1979, just as the first portfolios were being prepared.
It seems that every star who worked at MGM was photographed by Bull at least once. Paramount's biggest male attraction, Gary Cooper, was loaned to MGM in 1934 to co-star with Marion Davies in Operator 32. Bull and Cooper had a short session together on April 17, 1934 and the results were splendid. He infused Cooper with a sleek, polished glamour that was as unusual for male subjects as was the cigarette dangling from his lips. [K36] Old timers and newcomers all had the chance to work with Bull including vaudeville alumna Marie Dressler, who for a short time in the early 1930s was Hollywood's number one draw, and ingďż˝nue Lana Turner, who at twenty was co-starring with Clark Cable in Honky Tonk. Bull started experimenting with color photography in the late 1930s making a color exposure of Garbo first in 1936 and again in 1941. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s he worked extensively in color recording, among others, Elizabeth Taylor at the moment she was being considered for adult roles.
Bull presided over a team of talented stills' photographers some of whom occasionally made portraits, generally on the set. The finest were Milton Brown, William Grimes, James Manatt and for a short time in the mid 1920s, Bert Longworth (1893-1964). Longworth took the stills for Garbo's first three pictures and his images of Garbo and Gilbert in a clinch for Flesh and the Devil (1926) [K29] are the quintessence of old time movie romance. He left MGM in 1927 for Warner Brothers. James Manatt was Marion Davies' favorite photographer and in addition to working on all her films he made the lion's share of her portraits.
Among the important MGM photographers the only one who Kobal did not meet was the studio's (and Hollywood's) lone female portrait artist, Ruth Harriet Louise. Louise's brief reign as portrait studio chief lasted from mid 1925 to the end of 1929. To Louise goes the credit of being the photographer who fashioned Garbo's face into the timeless visage still immediately recognizable worldwide. Just twenty-two when she joined MGM in the summer of 1925, Louise lost her job to George Hurrell four years later. Throughout the 1930s she occasionally took private commissions photographing stars such as Anna Sten (in 1932) and Myrna Loy (in 1935).
Louise died in childbirth in 1940, the year Kobal was born, utterly forgotten by an industry she had worked assiduously to document. Kobal avidly collected her original prints and acquired hundreds of her negatives. Of all the photographers he introduced in The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers Louise's career was most in need of rehabilitation. Even her gender, which set her apart from all her contemporaries, had been insufficient reason to keep her memory alive.
Louise was among the first Hollywood photographers to break away from the old fashioned convention of staid portrait shots and introduced the nuance of her sitter's personality. When she photographed stars in costume she attempted to find something of the character being portrayed. Kobal noted that she was "in the vanguard of the photographers who would revolutionize Hollywood portrait photography". Hollywood portraiture before Louise documented strong personas: Swanson's glamour, Chaplin's tramp, Pickford's waif. Louise took the screen personas of her favorite sitters, such as Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford, and in her photographs humanized them while never letting their star luster diminish. "There is about Louise's work," wrote Kobal in 1980, "a delicacy, a shy, appealing privacy, that established an immediate bond with the viewer." Her subjects liked her and trusted her, including the elusive Garbo. The two young women worked together starting with Garbo's first portrait session in Hollywood, two months before she appeared on the set, through her ascent as MGM's greatest female draw. Louise's sensitive touch along with the work of MGM's brilliant cinematographers combined to create the face that enthralled movie goers.
There has been discussion in Hollywood literature as to how much Louise relied on full-length shots, which she would then crop to make half-length or close-up portraits. Kobal may have started this notion when he wrote about Louise. Although cropping was and remains a useful tool in most photographers' practice, in fact Louise took as many close-up and (especially) medium shots as any of her contemporaries. Kobal identified correctly that many of Louise's famous compositions were derived from cropped negatives that found their final form in the darkroom. But Louise's surviving negatives (numbering in the thousands) demonstrate without question that Louise shot regularly in close-up and medium shots and these also formed the basis for many of her most important photographs.
George Hurrell started work at MGM at the beginning of 1930 and almost immediately transformed Hollywood photography. Brought to MGM at the insistence of Norma Shearer, his task was to make his subjects, especially women, sexy. Not only did he succeed but his work, in this respect, has never been bettered. Norma Shearer was an attractive and talented actress, who through determination and fortitude, not to mention marriage to MGM's top producer Irving Thalberg, managed to secure most of the studio's choicest female roles. But she found herself increasingly cast as the nice girl or sophisticated matron when she wanted the racier roles given to Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Hurrell changed Shearer's appearance, at least in the portrait gallery, and there is no question that the lovely lady portrayed by Ruth Harriet Louise took on a new and smoldering guise when seen through Hurrell's lens. Hurrell's very best work was saved for Joan Crawford who likely enjoyed being photographed more than any actress before Marilyn Monroe. Of the approximately 100,000 photographs that were coded by MGM's publicity department from 1924 through 1942, Crawford's face appears more often than any other star. Hurrell and Crawford enjoyed an extraordinary collaboration beginning at MGM and continuing after he went independent in late 1932. Hurrell could be almost brutal with his sitters subjecting them variously to strong lights, extreme close-ups, and complicated positions. Crawford survived all of Hurrell's antics and her allure was only heightened by his inventive camerawork.
Glamour was Hurrell's hallmark and he saved the best for his ladies. Harlow reached her peak of sexual allure in front of Hurrell's lens as did Carole Lombard and Veronica Lake when he shot portraits for Paramount. As good as Hurrell was in the 1930s, his 1943 photographs of Jane Russell in the hay, taken to promote The Outlaw, are likely his most famous and frequently reproduced.
Hurrell did not have the temperament to last long as part of a studio team. He remained available to MGM on a contract basis throughout the 1930s, photographing Harlow, Gable and Crawford, among others, both at his studio and at MGM. MGM seemed to have been grooming Harvey White to take Hurrell's place but he lasted at the studio less than a year. The work by White that survives includes copious shots of Jean Harlow on the set of Dinner at 8.
Kobal and Hurrell must have enjoyed swapping tales about Marlene Dietrich, who, when Kobal met her in 1960, was in the midst of a second career as a concert performer. A quarter of a century earlier she was one of Hollywood's reigning queens and for six years beginning when she came to Hollywood in 1930, Dietrich's star shined brightly especially in a series of films made at Paramount directed by Joseph von Sternberg. But two duds released in 1937, Knight Without Armour and Angel, saw her value sink rapidly and she was dropped from the Paramount roster. Strategically and in an attempt to bolster her career, she commissioned a series of portraits from Hurrell. The feathered hat and chiffon dress she selected for the session obviously pleased both actress and photographer and the results proved that although her film career might be faltering, she was as beautiful as ever. Two years later she was back with one of her greatest hits, Destry Rides Again -- but it was a western and at Universal, something of a comedown for a Paramount star. Might Hurrell's dazzling portraits have helped her secure the role?
Ted Allan is remembered as one of the best-liked studio photographers. He printed extensively from his negatives for Kobal and was respected for his superb darkroom technique. Allan took over Hurrell's gallery at MGM and stayed for four years until 1937. During those years he was Harlow's primary portrait photographer. Allan also had a particularly good rapport with male stars. Unlike Hurrell and Bull, whose reputations rest with women, Allan brought an appealing masculinity to subjects as diverse as Robert Taylor, James Stewart and The Marx Brothers.
Kobal also tracked down Laszlo Willinger (1909-1989, Ted Allan's successor, who was living a quiet retirement in Los Angeles. Hungarian-born Willinger came to MGM in 1937 as part of the studio's last European sweep for talent before the outbreak of the Second World War. Hedy Lamarr and Luise Rainer were signed at the same time. At first Willinger was reticent about speaking of the past because he felt there was little interest in Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s. Kobal convinced Willinger that he was interested and the two developed a friendship.
Willinger brought a fresh look to MGM and Hollywood photography -- his prints have a crisp luminescence and his compositions often orient his subjects on the diagonal, which gives them a modern, European sophistication. "I tried to make a photograph as dramatic as possible," Willinger wrote in 1986, "by lighting dramatically." As he did with Hurrell, Kobal anxiously queried the veteran photographer about photographic practices. Willinger recounted to Kobal, "Loads of photos were taken and the negatives were sitting around, but they were never used because the stars vetoed them. Even though MGM's first lady Norma Shearer wanted Willinger to make all her portraits after 1937, and he did photograph her beautifully for Marie Antoniette (1937) and later films including The Women (1939), that didn't guarantee the road would be easy. "If Shearer liked 10 percent of a sitting," Willinger told Kobal, "you were going great. With Crawford you could figure 80 percent would be okay." "The one I liked best to work with was Vivien Leigh. She was a thorough professional."
Along with Leigh, Willinger photographed the new stars that MGM cultivated in the early 1940s to replace old timers such as Garbo and Shearer who were retiring or Crawford who was being forced out of the studio. Looking back on his career Willinger wrote, "I photographed what there ought to be." Stars hired by MGM in the 1940s such as Ingrid Bergman and John Garfield gave him pretty good raw material. So too did tireless cinema veteran Marlene Dietrich who came to MGM in 1944 to make Kismet. Willinger's portrait of her standing above him shows the great star had lost none of her authority with the camera.
Eric Carpenter worked at MGM, aside from a couple of short breaks, from 1933 to the 1960s elevated from office boy to Bull's assistant, he finally became a portrait photographer at precisely the moment when MGM was cultivating a new crop of stars - Lana Turner, Esther Williams and the popular team Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. A decade later Carpenter photographed Marilyn Monroe when she made The Asphalt Jungle (1950). He "photographed her," wrote Kobal "in a pose and clinging dress similar to what he'd successfully used with Lana Turner, most of whose poses had been variations of those dreamed up for Harlow." In an interview after he retired Carpenter told Kobal, "The stars were about the only ones who appreciated what you were trying to do. As far as the producers and executives were concerned, it was just publicity. They couldn't have cared less."
MGM's last portrait photographer was Virgil Apger. He started as Bull's assistant in 1930, took over the portrait gallery in 1947 and left in 1969. As Hollywood photography changed in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, and sharp lenses, flat light and stiff poses became the norm, Apger continued true to the MGM tradition. When Elvis Presley came to MGM to make Jailhouse Rock in 1957, he got the studio's typical glamour treatment, including a portrait session with Apger. By the late 1950s, however, after MGM's last great productions, like the 1959 re-make of Ben-Hur, glamour was over in Hollywood and Apger's departure in 1969 coincided with MGM's takeover by Kirk Kerkorian, which closed the door on the past forever.
The Art of the Great Hollywood Photographers at first glance appears to be a tribute to Marlene Dietrich and the team of Paramount photographers who worked with her and director Joseph von Sternberg to create one of Hollywood's most glamorous presences. But a more careful reading (and looking) reveals a far more subtle agenda. For Kobal Dietrich provides merely one case study of the way photographers can work their magic. He might have chosen Garbo, or Carol Lombard, or Gloria Swanson, actresses who, like Dietrich, were photographed time and again, and responded magically to the camera (and each of whom retains a loyal (even fanatical) following decades after ending her film career). Kobal decided to shine the light on Dietrich - The Art of the Great Hollywood Photographers begins with her, and her face graces the longest photographer's portfolio at the book's conclusion.
Paramount (then known as Famous Players-Lasky) was the first studio to set aside a permanent gallery for portrait photography. Donald Biddle Keyes, who had been working as a still photographer for the studio, suggested this consolidation to alleviate the increasing burden of hiring contract photographers to supply an ever-increasing need of photographic services. By the mid 1920s Paramount had a lively stills and portraits department with dozens of employees. MGM followed suit immediately after its creation in 1924. At the end of the decade all major studios were handling stills and portraiture in-house. The top portrait artists helped shaped his or her studio's style as much as any cinematographer.
Eugene Robert Richee headed Paramount's portrait studio from its inception and he worked with a talented coterie of associates including William Walling and Don English. Richee remains the least examined among the top Hollywood photographers although he was one of the finest - one needs to look no further than his sensational portraits of Paramount stars Anna Mae Wong , Clara Bow , Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich as evidence. Even a tireless researcher like Kobal had difficulty uncovering biographical information about Richee and it is only after Kobal's death that a few details have emerged about Richee's life including his 1896 birth in Colorado. He started at Paramount in 1921 and stayed for twenty years after which he left he left to take a job at Warner Brothers. Richee died in 1972 just before Kobal began exploring seriously the careers of Hollywood portrait photographers. Like Ruth Harriet Louise, Richee left scant biographical information behind but, again like Louise, he left a corpus of extraordinary work that may be seen as emblematic of the best of Hollywood photography.
Richee was an inventive photographer and when working with starlets he sometimes incorporated props made of plastic, glass or even mirrors, giving his prints a sparkling reflective quality. Portraits of the top stars always had a sheen that was consistent with the studio's image of smart sophistication. When he photographed Clara Bow, the studio's number one sexpot took on a polished veneer. Richee has the distinction of being the first photographer to record Veronica Lake and her distinctive blond locks in his portraits for I Wanted Wings (1940), the film that brought her worldwide fame.
Perhaps Richee's most famous work is a 1928 portrait of Louise Brooks wearing a long string of pearls. Few photos capture better the zeitgeist of the Roaring '20s. Simplicity is the hallmark of this photograph along with a masterful composition. Brooks stands, face in profile and wearing a simple long sleeved black dress, against a black background, her face, hands and pearls alone illuminated. Her bob with its razor sharp line across the white skin of her jaw was widely copied and became one of the last century's most potent fashion statements. Brooks's career had intermittent highs and lows but she was one of Hollywood's great portrait subjects and was never better served than by Richee.
At the top of his game and for reasons unknown, Richee left Paramount in 1941 to go to Warner Brothers. A.L. "Whitey" Schafer who had been in the top position at Columbia, replaced Richee. This change indicated Paramount's image was shifting away from the opulent glamour that had typified publicity material released during the two previous decades. During Schafer's first years at Paramount he took most of Veronica Lake's portraits and at the beginning of the next decade worked with many new stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift when they made A Place In The Sun, before his death in 1951. Bud Fraker began working at Columbia in the early 1930s where his brother William ran the portrait studio. He remained at Columbia until 1942 when he moved to Paramount as Schafer's assistant. At Schafer's death he became director of still photography for Paramount, a job he kept for a decade. Although he photographed many of Paramount's top stars his most enduring work records Audrey Hepburn during the production her first two films as star, Roman Holiday and Sabrina.
Gary Cooper had made more than twenty-five films in five years when he was cast as Dietrich's first Paramount co-star in Morocco. Cooper was the first male Hollywood star to bridge the opposing forces of masculinity and beauty. Plenty of handsome men had great careers before Cooper but none so perfectly fused what had always been considered opposites. According to Bob Coburn who worked principally at Columbia, Cooper was "embarrassed a little bit at constantly being photographed. He preferred to be in movement in front of the camera."
Stills' photographers, rarely credited, often created the most durable images of a film scene or star and this was especially the case at Paramount where the romantic atmosphere on many sets lent itself to luscious photography. William Walling who served as Paramount's second portrait photographer in the 1930s also made stills for Dietrich's films Devil is a Woman and The Scarlet Empress. Kobal noticed that he had a particularly affinity working with younger, upcoming stars. In the 1940s and 1950s Walling worked at Universal. Later, he was one of the photographers who printed for Kobal from his original negatives. Don English, Paramount's premier still photographer, took some of the most memorable and seductive portraits of Dietrich on the set of Dishonored (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932).
John Engstead and Otto Dyar and started their careers at Paramount during the 1920s. Engstead was hired as an office boy in the publicity department in 1926 and worked his way up to the important post of supervisor in charge of stills. Engstead achieved this position when he asked Otto Dyar, working at Paramount as a still photographer, to make portraits of Clara Bow at the shore. Engstead failed to clear this session with his superiors in the publicity department who were protective of major stars like Bow. What saved Engstead's job and ultimately secured his promotion were the marvelous results of the Dyar-Bow session. Dyar left for Fox Pictures in 1933 and probably not coincidentally Engstead started taking pictures on his own, using Cary Grant as his first model. He stayed at Paramount until he lost his job during the restructuring of the stills' department in 1941. Leaving Paramount, Engstead opened his own portrait studio and became one of Hollywood's most successful independents, serving as Dietrich's principal photographer when she started her concert career in the 1950s. Called to Warner Brothers to photograph Marlon Brando during the filming of Streetcar Named Desire, he made the great star's finest portraits.
Paramount and MGM were Hollywood's two most prestigious studios and promoted glamour above all. Warner Brothers, constantly vying for top honors, became known for gritty dramas, action and adventure movies and made some of the era's most memorable musicals. Like MGM and Paramount, Warner Brothers cultivated stars, but character often counted for more than beauty and the studio was known for actors with distinctive faces and personalities - men like Jimmy Cagney, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and women such as Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland and especially Bette Davis. Although glamour was not Warner's main product, the studio nonetheless needed a smart and careful photographer and Elmer Fryer served his studio and subjects well from 1929 until 1940.
Rarely do we see in Fryer's work the other-world quality often found in portraits taken at MGM and Paramount. He made Bette Davis beautiful but she always looked like Bette Davis. The tough guy swagger of Warner's leading men never vanished in the re-touching room. Imaginative shots were generally limited to the glamour girls who had an earthy sexiness that always seemed to distinguish the Warner's female contract players from their counterparts at other studios.
Bert Longworth, who worked a time at MGM (with a short stop at Paramount), was recruited by Warner Brothers in 1929, and stayed at the studio for more than a decade. Always one of the most inventive of the stills photographers, he became an action specialist working on the Warner's musicals including the spectacles directed by Busby Berkeley. Longworth was the first Hollywood photographer to produce of book of his photographs, Hold Still Hollywood published in a limited edition 1937.
Madison Lacy (1898-1978) worked at Warner's in the 1930s. He was interviewed by Kobal shortly before his death in 1978 and during that conversation discussed the mores of the era, especially in light of the Hayes Office and the puritanical Motion Picture Code. Lacy recounted the inherent difficulties in making girls sexy under the watchful eyes of the censors. "You'd deliberately make some things more erotic than others. They'd kill the most erotic ones, and you'd still have some that were reasonable by comparison."
George Hurrell was tempted by the offer of a lucrative contract to return to studio work and spent two years (1939-40) at Warner's, adding a polish to the portrait studio's offerings. Pity that Hurrell did not stay long enough to work with Joan Crawford when she came to the studio in 1945 after MGM dropped her contract. Crawford left (most of) the glamorous gal behind and in the films she made at Warner Brothers became one of Hollywood's greatest dramatic actresses. She did have the chance to work with Richee but the two seemed to have lost their fire; Paramount's greatest photographer of the 1930s coupled with MGM's top portrait subject produced only routine pictures together.
Mickey Marigold started shooting stills at Universal in the early 1930s before coming to Warner Brothers about 1935 where he remained for more than a decade. Working at Warner Brothers gave Marigold the opportunity to photograph future American president Ronald Reagan in costume for perhaps his best known role as football hero Knute Rockne. Later, Marigold worked at Republic Pictures where he is recorded working from 1948-1950.
Scotty Welbourne, a ten year veteran of the studio, took the top job at Warner's in 1940 and stayed for five years. He specialized in the tough guy realism that made huge stars out of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. Bert Six took Welbourne's post in 1945. He had been at Warner's for most of his career taking stills and was a favorite of Bette Davis.[K35] Floyd McCarty worked on he set of Warner's 1950s classics, Some Like It Hot and A Star Is Born as well as the three films that define James Dean's career and mythology, East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and Giant.
Only Ernest Bachrach (1900-1990) at Radio Keith Orpheum had a career at one studio that rivaled Clarence Bull's tenure at MGM. He joined RKO at its inception in 1929 and stayed until Desilu purchased the studio in 1958. Before coming to RKO, Bachrach worked in New York for Famous Players-Lasky. In the mid 1920s Famous Players-Lasky was consolidated with parent Paramount Pictures and production was moved to Los Angeles. Bachrach worked independently for a short period and photographed many of the silent beauties including Mae Murray and Gloria Swanson. According to Bob Coburn who during the 1930s assisted Bachrach in the RKO portrait studio, "Gloria [Swanson] thought he was the only photographer in the world and when she came back out here to work, he came with her." His portraits of Swanson testify to her feelings about the quality of his work. "Bachrach was an all-around man," Coburn told Kobal, "he could do anything photographic."
Katharine Hepburn was signed by RKO in 1932 and made fourteen films including Bringing Up Baby (1938) before she was dropped as "box office poison" six years later. Bachrach made nearly all of Hepburn's portraits during this period and turned her angular, slightly androgynous and freckled face into an archetype of 1930s glamour. Bachrach's transformation of Hepburn's face and the subtlety through which he photographed her through films as different as Christopher Strong (1933) and Spitfire (1934) is rivaled by the range of Hurrell's work with Joan Crawford. "I used to pose a lot for Bachrach." Hepburn told Kobal. "I enjoyed it. The results amused me. He liked me, he liked to photograph me, and I enjoyed it. He was an awfully good photographer although I don't think the studio thought anything about it."
Beauties such as Carole Lombard, Michele Morgan, and Betty Grable were also well served by Bachrach's camera when they worked at RKO. Lombard was under contract to Paramount during most of the 1930s before coming to RKO in 1939 where she made four films over two years. Coburn remembered that working with Lombard at RKO was "fun and games. And she really knew what to do, she knew the techniques, where the lights went. She knew nothing would be wrong if I shot her. And they all knew you wouldn't let their bad points show. They trusted you."
Lombard had worked at PathĂ© Exchange before it merged with RKO in 1931under the leadership of Joseph P. Kennedy. In the late twenties she was photographed extensively by William E. Thomas who may have employed by PathĂ© but more probably did contract work for the studio. Thomas served as a free-lance photographer working for many of the top studios through the 1950s.
Like Clarence Bull, Bachrach worked through the 1950s giving him the chance to photograph a new generation of stars like Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood. With Monroe he managed to make an artfully contrived photograph seem as spontaneous as a snapshot. Eastwood, photographed in 1956 before he had been noticed by the public, preens before Bachrach's camera revealing a side to the actor which is startlingly at odds with his later persona.
John Miehle was RKO's principal still photographer and was responsible for almost every image of Astaire and Rogers dancing taken during their nine films at the studio. Alex Kahle and Gaston Longet also took stills and occasionally made portraits. Kahle is best known today for his photographs on the set of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Along with assisting Bachrach, Coburn occasionally shot stills at RKO most memorably for King Kong (1933).
20th Century Fox
The Fox Film Corporation merged with 20th Century Productions in 1935 creating 20th Century Fox. Although Fox had been an on-going and successful business since 1914, it was the executives at 20th Century that took control of the new studio and kept their studio's logo while adding the Fox name to the brand. The studio nourished a small group of stars that achieved great fame, including Alice Faye, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe.
Max Munn Autrey was Fox's first portrait photographer joining in 1925 and remaining until 1933. He depicted Fox's early leading ladies in a particularly romantic guise. Leaving Fox he worked independently including as still photographer for Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). Concurrent with Autrey's departure, Fox hired two new photographers, Otto Dyar and Gene Kornman. Dyar came from Paramount where he had been photographing ingĂ©nues and Kornman previously worked on most of Harold Lloyd's now classic comedies from the 1920s. Kornman stayed at Fox until the mid 1950s photographing the studio's wide range of talent, from Shirley Temple to Rita Hayworth and in the 1950s he still showed fire behind the lens in his portraits of Marilyn Monroe.
Frank Powolny worked at Fox beginning in 1923 and continued until 1966 eventually serving as head portrait and still photographer. "They used to say that still men were disappointed cameramen, but I don't think so." Powolny was recounting with Kobal the pecking order among studio photographers with the exalted cinematographers occupying the top rung. "I've known too many good still men who were just as good with a movie camera and who, like me, preferred still work. In my case, I suppose, it had a lot to do with my early training in painting and sculpture; there is the same problem - suggesting motion and story telling in a fixed pattern of light and shade."
Most of the top portrait photographers had a favorite subject or one whose images are closely identified with their work. In the case of Powolny the actress is Loretta Young who was one of Fox's biggest stars of the 1930s. Young takes credit for his jump from still to portrait photographer. "Powolny is the only one that I am conscious of spending any time with. I took him out of that candid stuff on the set and put him into the portrait gallery." Although she liked him and he made among her very best portraits, the name of another photographer lingered in the background. "Just take a look at all those Hurrell things" Young told Powolny. "...that's what I like to look like.".
Powolny is responsible for the most famous of all Hollywood portraits, at least the one most reproduced, Betty Grable's iconic image from 1942. Wearing a bathing suit, Grable was shot full length from the rear with her head coyly turned to the spectator. Powolny's photograph was circulated in the millions to soldiers during World War II and made the actress the last century's number one pin-up girl.
Unlike most other Hollywood studios in the 1930s that competed for audiences with sophisticated dramas and comedies, Universal became known for horror films. Two of the scariest horror films of the silent period were made at Universal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both starring Lon Chaney. It was in 1931, however, with the release of Dracula and Frankenstein, that the name Universal became synonymous with this ghoulish genre. They were followed by The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) and sequels that played on into the 1940s.
Jack Freulich had been Universal's portrait photographer since the silent days and had photographed Lon Chaney as well as a young Bette Davis when she made her first three pictures at Universal. The studio's apparent lack of interest in cultivating brand name stars, however, meant that although Freulich was a skillful and elegant photographer, he rarely had the chance to photograph the great faces such as those found at MGM and Paramount. His brother Roman Freulich was the chief still photographer and seems to have had all the fun, taking many of the most memorable images of the 1930s such as his stills and on-set photographs of actors such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi artfully made-up as Frankenstein's monster or Count Dracula. Sherman Clark assisted with stills and served as the studio's general photographer for twenty years starting in the early 1930s aside from a short stint at Paramount in 1932.
The name Ray Jones is practically synonymous with portraiture at Universal Studios. In 1935, the year after Jack Freulich's death, he took over the portrait studio and stayed until the studio closed the portrait gallery in 1958. It was during Jones's tenure that Universal changed its policy and started putting stars under long term contract. Marlene Dietrich and W.C. Fields were two Universal headliners during the early 1940s. Yvonne de Carlo and Burt Lancaster came later in the decade. Smoldering sex was never Ray Jones's stock in trade but his portraits Lancaster and Ava Gardner for The Killers (1946) sizzle.
Like Universal, Columbia was late in gathering up stars. When the studio began hiring in earnest in the mid 1930s Columbia succeeded admirably adding Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, William Holden and most notably Rita Hayworth. A.L. "Whitey" Schafer photographed them all before leaving Columbia in 1941 to take the top job at Paramount. William Fraker, Jr. was Columbia's first portrait photographer beginning in the late twenties and remaining until his death in 1934 and was the uncle of Bud Fraker who shot stills at Paramount.
The photographer most closely identified with Columbia is Bob Coburn who came to the studio from RKO in 1941 having also worked for two years (1935-36) for Samuel Goldwyn and stayed through the 1950s. "Bachrach taught me to never take a straight shot. We always cocked the cameras. We'd either sit on our butts and shoot up or something, or turn the camera. We'd go for the composition of the picture and make something interesting out of it rather than what we call 'the company shot." Kobal's interview with Coburn was one of the most interesting and illuminating interviews among the many photographers he visited. Coburn was described by Kobal as resistant to taking about the past but when he opened up he brought to life something of what really happened during portrait sessions. Describing his work with Merle Oberon, Coburn recalled, "She'd sit there with very little makeup on, and I'd start painting her face with light." He also discussed the long hours necessary to come up with the one essential photograph: "...you had to shoot a lot of film to get a good one; you can't just depend on that one shot to be good to get that expression on a Hayworth or an Oberon that would get everybody excited about them."
Gilda ranks as one of the finest film noir classics and its place in film history depends largely upon Rita Hayworth's portrayal of the title character. Hayworth's beauty and her dancing ability made her Columbia's top star for a decade. While working with Fred Astaire on You'll Never Get Rich, Life photographer Bob Landry photographed Hayworth at the studio, at the beach and in her apartment. So good were the photographs that Hayworth got the magazine's cover for the week of August 11, 1941, and one of the images reproduced shows the actress kneeling provocatively on her bed wearing a silk and lace slip. Like Powolny's portrait of Grable, this photograph caught the attention of American G.I.'s and became the second most reproduced pin-up of the war years (and perhaps the century).
When Hayworth started to show troubling signs of middle age, Columbia chief Harry Cohn decided that Kim Novak would became his studio's new sex goddess. She had neither the talent nor beauty of Hayworth, but she managed over a dozen years beginning in 1955 to become a popular leading lady if not quite a major star.
There are many Hollywood photographs, even those reproduced time and again, where the name of the maker has been lost. Two of the most famous of these mysteries were made for the Columbia films. Few images conjure better the rebellious youth of the 1950s than the photograph of Marlon Brando seated confidently astride a motorcycle that was taken as publicity for The Wild One (1953). Irving Lippman served as still photographer on the film and Robert Coburn shot portraits, but it is impossible to credit either man with assurance. Even more of a mystery is the sensational series of portraits taken of Elizabeth Taylor on the beach in a white bathing suit for Suddenly Last Summer (1959).
As Kobal learned from his many conversations with the surviving stillsmen, in the end it was a special relationship between photographer and subject that engendered the best results. "There are things it's hard to explain, John," Coburn recounted, "how you get people to do things, to respond. You work with them a lot; they became like your second nature sometimes. I'd be talking and telling them things and be focused all the time, having everything ready to shoot, so that when I got what I wanted, I shot like a madman. Film was cheap."
Independent Photographers - New York
For many stars or would-be stars the journey to Hollywood began in New York City. Brooklyn-born Clara Bow won a beauty contest sponsored by Motion Picture magazine that promised the winner a role in movie. Several film parts followed, all shot in New York, and during that time she started seeking out the finest portrait photographers including Nickolas Muray. Her career took off when she was offered a contract with Preferred Pictures (later Paramount) which necessitated a move to Los Angeles. Charles Albin was a New York society photographer, and his superb portraits of Mary Astor made when she was sixteen are rumored to have been her ticket to movie stardom.
Likewise, Arnold Genthe's masterful portraits of Garbo made in the summer of 1925 are often credited as awakening MGM to the young actress's potential. It is an attractive myth, but Garbo was already cast in her first MGM film before she even met Genthe. Mary Pickford was one of the few Hollywood stars to patronize Baron Adolph de Meyer when he moved to New York for a short time after the First World War.
New York's bustling theater and nascent movie industries supported a thriving coterie of portrait photographers. Irving Chidnoff and Herbert Mitchell were two of the most successful. Marlene Dietrich was among the hundreds of hopefuls who passed through New York on their way to Hollywood and took time to have Chidnoff make portraits. Among New York photographers, James Abbe worked more closely with the movie industry than did his colleagues and he was always ready to follow his clientele working, as the need arose, in California or Europe.
British photographer Cecil Beaton was enthralled by the Hollywood life and made his first trip to southern California in the early 1930s to make portraits for Screenland magazine. As she had been for many photographers, Garbo was his goal, but he would have to wait until 1946 when she summoned him to make a passport photograph. Away from the movies for five years and living quietly in New York, Garbo was considering returning to film-work. Making his first post-war visit to New York, Beaton had been lured by a lucrative contract from Vogue to shoot fashion photographs. Hearing he was in New York, Garbo invited eager Beaton to take her passport photograph - and as it turned out dozens more - and the results of an afternoon's work revealed Garbo's thrilling beauty was hardly diminished.
George Hoyningen-Heune was, like Beaton, a well known fashion photographer. He was based in New York but occasionally worked in Hollywood particularly when called on by director George Cukor throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. In Hollywood he photographed subjects including Ava Gardner during the filming of Bhowani Junction (1956) and Marilyn Monroe shooting Let's Make Love (1962).
Independent Photographers - Los Angeles
The Film Daily 1928 Yearbook lists more than three dozen independent photographers working in Los Angeles and supporting the rapidly growing film industry. One name that does not appear on the list is Nelson Evans who was among Hollywood's first photographers. Kobal examined Evans's career in detail in his book Hollywood: The Years of Innocence. Recorded working by 1915, within a decade Evans had vanished; Kobal did not speculate on the reason but merely asked, "Who was he? What happened to him?" Evans left an extraordinary photographic legacy, recording Hollywood at work and at play, making portraits as well as photographing the ever changing city of Los Angeles. Pickford and Swanson were among his subjects as were the first cowboy stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Little, too, is known about Arthur Rice who photographed Valentino in 1921 and 1922 and Keaton during the same period.
Among that list of independents were a select few favored by the stars of the burgeoning movie industry. Albert Witzel's work with Theda Bara in 1917 might well establish that he was Hollywood's first proper glamour photographer. Working at the same time was Walter Frederick Seely. Like Witzel he enjoyed a decade of popularity with the stars before publicity was moved within the studio's walls where it could be tightly controlled. Melbourne Spurr lasted a bit longer than the others in part because he was a well-liked ladies man. His work also kept pace with the changes emanating from the studio's galleries, and into the 1930s Spurr could be counted on to provide top-notch work for actors who were outside the protection of a studio. Mary Pickford, who served as producer on many of her films, hired Knute Olaf Rahmn to make her portraits and shoot scene-stills. So completely did she monopolize Rahmn that his credit has only been found on publicity for Pickford's films. A few photographers had tight professional relationships with directors such as George Cannons who worked primarily for Mack Sennett.
It is hard to imagine that Edward Sheriff Curtis, the first authority on and famous chronicler of the American India, with J. Pierpont Morgan as a onetime patron, would arrive in Hollywood virtually penniless. To pay off the debts from a crippling divorce, Curtis worked as a cameraman and still photographer for Cecil B. de Mille on The Ten Commandments (1923) and other films. After five years, Curtis left Hollywood in 1927 to resume his earlier work. William Mortensen, who went on to write many important books about photography, also worked for De Mille most shooting artistic stills and portraits for King of Kings (1927).
Two more photographers who worked with De Mille would go on to achieve great fame, Karl Struss in Hollywood as an Academy Award winning cinematographer for Sunrise (1929), and Arthur F. Kales as a leader in the photography movement known as California Pictorialism. Struss and Kales were both hired by de Mille when he was shooting Male and Female (1919) starring Gloria Swanson. The extravagant budgets accorded early De Mille productions, especially when working with stars on the order of Swanson, allowed equally excessive publicity. Struss and Kales each rendered their subjects with an atmospheric sensuality that must have seemed radical in pre-roaring-twenties Hollywood portraiture.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn, who remained independent of Hollywood's studio system, nevertheless, was in need of portrait and still photographers. Kenneth Alexander worked on most Goldwyn projects from about 1925 to 1935 and he occasionally would take on contract work with one of the major studios. More recently, Margaret Bourke White, well known photographer for Life and the first woman to work as a war photographer, took a break in 1943 to take portraits and set shots for Samuel Goldwyn's The North Star, which given the day's politics, provided something of an idealized view of Soviet life.
After the onset of the studio system which by 1930 brought nearly all still and portrait photography under the watchful of the moguls and their publicity chiefs, there remained a small group of independent photographers who worked contractually or on special projects. Russell Ball preferred to free-lance working at various times in New York City and Hollywood. In the mid 1920s Ball had a studio on West 49th Street in New York where he made Garbo's (practically unrecognizable) first American portraits. These photographs which rarely have a credit stamp are usually attributed to Ruth Harriet Louise. Ball moved to Hollywood in 1927 where he worked for a short time at MGM. This gave him a second opportunity to photograph Garbo. Once again, his photographs are generally attributed to Louise. Examples from both sessions were published by Kobal with credit to Louise. After leaving MGM Ball became a popular photographer with performers who were working in independent productions such as films distributed through United Artists.
Lansing Brown also made a good living outside of the studios, although the death of singer Russ Columbo from a shot fired from an antique pistol at Brown's house curtailed somewhat his activities within the tight-knit world of Hollywood. Details of the shooting were never fully described but Brown was exonerated. Variously a film director and painter, Harry Lachman worked sporadically as a photographer including a stint on the set of MGM's first great hit, Ben-Hur (1925). British-born Davis Boulton was among the first transatlantic photographers dividing his time over three decades between London and Hollywood. In the 1950s Leo Fuchs, who was born in Vienna, worked on many American projects filming in Europe before being brought to the United States by Rock Hudson in 1960.
It is surprising given Yousuf Karsh's extraordinary corpus of portraits of major twentieth century figures that he photographed so few film stars. Ottawa-based, Karsh frequently traveled to the United States. While in Los Angeles in 1956, he photographed Charlton Heston, out of costume, during the filming of The Ten Commandments.
Alongside the official Hollywood portrait machine was a smaller industry specializing in risquĂ© photographs, generally of young women with dreams of silverdust. Edwin Bower Hesser, who had a good business making traditional portraits of his subjects, also made intimate and revealing drapeshots. In order to insure that his work was seen as artistic and not prurient he published a magazine boldly titled Edwin Bower Hesser's Arts Monthly Pictorial. Before she became a great MGM star Jean Harlow was one of his subjects and they had a memorable session together in 1929 at Los Angeles's Griffith Park. Harlow can been seen variously seated on rocks, wading in a shallow pool or standing arms outstretched. Men escaped this sort of exposure for, with rare exceptions, it was unusual for male subjects to be photographed with as much as a shirt unbuttoned. Ramon Novarro was the single exceptions in twenties Hollywood and in long portions of Ben-Hur (1925) and nearly all of The Pagan (1928) he sports a loin-cloth. When in Italy to shoot Ben-Hur he was persuaded by the Rome-based avant-garde photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia to pose nude. Other such works, if made by American photographers, remains discreetly hidden.
Little had changed for the girls when Marilyn Monroe agreed, twenty years later in 1949, to pose for Tom Kelly who specialized in calendar art. Like Harlow, she was working in bit parts when her photographs were taken. Unlike Harlow, who was married to a wealthy man, she was broke and needed the day's pay. Monroe's financial situation would begin to change the next year when she was cast for The Asphalt Jungle (1950) in a small but significant role that helped ignite her career.
Marilyn Monroe was not a subject that Kobal collected with much enthusiasm. Harlow on the other hand, counted for scores of original prints and negatives. Each was a blond, beautiful and talented actress who embodied her era's ideal of female sensuality. Harlow epitomized glamour and her photographs radiate an otherworldly glow. Monroe too projected glamour, but it was a thin coating that quickly melted under the force of her personality. It would be a waste of our time to search the glittering surfaces of Harlow's portraits for melancholy or a premonition of the illness that took her life at the age of twenty-six. Monroe, on the other hand, was transparent before the camera and the products of her portrait sessions continue to be scrutinized for signs of the trouble that led to her untimely death. Glamour protected the screen goddesses of an earlier era, enabling Garbo, Dietrich, Swanson and Harlow, behind an impenetrable veneer, to live largely private lives. Once upon a time moviegoers wanted actors and actresses to be bright and shining yet remote and distant -- that is why they were called stars. Later, audiences changed and stars followed suit. Kobal showed us this earlier world that had lasted nearly a half century in dozens of his books and exhibitions. For Kobal the silent era produced the "titans" and in the 1930s they were followed by the "gods".
|Unidentified Fox photographer
Marilyn Monroe being photographed by Frank Powolny
20th Century Fox 1953
|Unidentified MGM photographer
Photographer Laszlo Willinger
Robert Montgomery and photographer George Hurrell
|Clarence Sinclair Bull
Joan Crawford and photographer Ruth Harriet Louise
|Unidentified MGM photographer
Ava Gardner with photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull
|Unidentified Warner Brothers photographer
Jane Wyman with photographer Elmer Fryer
Warner Brothers 1936
|William Edward Cronenweth
Susan Peters and photographer Robert Coburn
Columbia Pictures 1948
|Unidentified Paramount photographer
Marlene Dietrich being photographed by Eugene Robert Richee with assistant John Engstead (sitting).
Paramount Pictures 1935
|Unidentified MGM photographer
Clarence Sinclair Bull photographing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh
for 'Gone with the Wind'
|Unidentified Parmount photographer
Photographer Don English
Paramount Pictures 1932