Stars, ready for their close-ups
Studio photographers perfected glamour shot
HANOVER, N.H. — Motion is what distinguishes motion pictures from other kinds of photography. It’s an enormous advantage in attracting, and holding, a viewer’s attention. If you doubt that, simply compare a page of a flipbook with that same page riffling past your eye as part of a series.
Both the viewing and making of motion pictures are much more elaborate operations than the viewing and making of still photographs. So for many years one of the easiest ways to promote motion pictures was through still photography, primarily in magazines like Photoplay, Motion Picture, and Screenland.
How, then, might still photographers make their work as arresting as images that move? That was the dilemma that faced Hollywood studio photographers during the ’20s, ’30s, ’40, and ’50s. By the ’60s, several factors — the arrival of television, the dissolution of the studio system, the rise of Method acting — had altered the equation.
What photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull did was use the same things the movies did, only more so: glamour, stylization, expressive angles, dramatic lighting, retouching. “Made in Hollywood: Photographs From the John Kobal Foundation,’’ which runs at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art through Sept. 12, offers more than 90 examples of this alluring craft as practiced by Hurrell, Bull, and four dozen of their colleagues. It isn’t the most challenging or illuminating show. It’s hard to imagine a more purely pleasurable one, though.
Hollywood portraiture is a genre unto itself in the same way that court painting is. With both, recording an individual’s appearance is of secondary importance to flattering that individual. Any good portrait of a famous person assesses, or even interrogates, that person’s public image. What both Hollywood portraits and court painting do is affirm that image — and they do so with the complicity of viewers. Just as subjects want their monarch to look worthy of their allegiance, so do moviegoers want their favorite stars to look worthy of their desire.
John Kobal may have been the first person to recognize the special appeal, and lasting value, of Hollywood photography. Certainly he was the first to act on that recognition. In the ’60s, Kobal began collecting vintage prints of studio portraits and production stills. He amassed more than 4,500 of them before his death, in 1991. The only comparable collection is the Michael Ochs Archives, for rock ’n’ roll and popular music, which is now owned by Getty Images. Yet there’s a crucial difference between the two. There are three million items in the Ochs Archives. Kobal, in contrast, preferred class to mass. Documentation was fine, but adoration was what he was after.
The most important influence on Hollywood photography was Edward Steichen. Although “Made in Hollywood’’ includes none of his photographs, their presence is felt throughout. Steichen’s studio was a production line of simple yet highly stylized portraits of entertainers and other celebrities that ran in Vanity Fair and Vogue during the ’20s and ’30s. Those portraits, with their high-contrast lighting, crisp compositions, and deferential stance (that especially) helped define the basic grammar of Hollywood photography.
Some famous photographic names crop up: Margaret Bourke-White, Karl Struss (an Oscar-winning cinematographer, too), Edward S. Curtis, Baron de Meyer, Burt Glinn, Yousuf Karsh. That their work doesn’t necessarily stand out here makes us appreciate just what a specialized skill Hollywood photography was. Hurrell, who has eight photographs in the show, and Bull, who has 11, were its masters.
What the genre sought was less heightened reality than exalted fantasy. This wasn’t necessarily an easy task. It’s one thing to click the shutter with Marlene Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman on the other side of it (the sultriness of the shadows in Ernest A. Bachrach’s 1942 portrait of Bergman!). It’s quite another when you’re trying to make a Charles Laughton or Fatty Arbuckle look glamorous. Maybe an awareness of the inherent incongruity of the proposition explains Arbuckle’s anxiousness in Herbert Mitchell’s 1925 portrait. Anxiety is rarely on display. The only other example is Rock Hudson, shot by Leo Fuchs in 1961 (the latest date in the show).
Hurrell worked as a freelance, as well as chief photographer at MGM, Warner Brothers, and Columbia. His portraits possess a luxuriance that’s like perfume on glossy paper. If ever there was a man who loved women — and whom women, very clearly, loved right back — it was Hurrell. His photograph here of Ann Sheridan out-Rita Hayworths Rita Hayworth. The nearby presence of Robert Coburn’s drop-dead picture of Hayworth in “Gilda’’ shows how hard that must have been.
Bull, who succeeded Hurrell at MGM, headed its stills department for more than four decades. He shot everyone from Johnny Weissmuller to Greta Garbo (he’s said to have taken more than 4,000 photographs of her). Bull’s 1933 shot of Weissmuller as Tarzan could give that guy in the Old Spice commercials a run for his money. King of the apes? King of the hunks is more like it. A year earlier, Bull shot Boris Karloff with a statue in the foreground and the actor to the rear. It jumps off the wall, thanks to its violating a cardinal axiom of the genre: The star must be front and center.
You can be sure Bull never tried something like that on Garbo or Elizabeth Taylor. He did shoot them in color, though. The only other color photo in the show is Tom Kelley’s notorious full-length nude of Marilyn Monroe (taken well before she became famous). This is an almost entirely black-and-white world, as it should be, in keeping with the sense of hothouse artifice. The growing emphasis in Hollywood on naturalism during the ’50s — everything from location shooting to the popularity of the Actors Studio — took a growing toll on such glamour. Worlds were beginning to collide within the frame. A gesturing James Dean, shot by Floyd McCarthy, looks like he’s auditioning for Kabuki.
Humor is glamour turned inside out with its seams unstitched. Hollywood photographers tended not to play things for laughs, but when they did it was usually to good effect. Bull’s image of Alfred Hitchcock pretending to direct the MGM lion is quite funny. Ted Allan went more for general high spirits, whether it be a production still of William Powell and Myrna Loy for “The Thin Man’’ or the Marx Brothers (complete with horse) in a portrait for “A Day at the Races.’’
Allan’s photographs of a dapper James Stewart posing with oversize reels of film is more surreal than comical. That’s also true of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney posing with a massive bass drum to promote “Strike Up the Band.’’ Props are relatively rare in these photographs. Another cardinal axiom of the genre is that any distraction from the picture’s true subject, the display of starpower, is to be avoided. So when a photographer chose to include something along with the sitter, you can see the prop is there for a reason.
Gary Cooper’s cigarette in a 1935 Bull portrait is the pivot on which the portrait turns. The two plaster Borzois that Michelle Morgan appears to be walking are so preposterous that Bachrach’s 1940 photograph soars over camp and goes straight to classicism. The long, long rope of pearls Louise Brooks wears in Eugene Robert Richee’s wonderfully stylized 1929 portrait doesn’t just stand out against her black dress and the dark background. It ennobles them. Brooks herself needs no ennobling. As everything in the photograph attests, she’s superior to any noblewoman. She’s a star.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.