Capturing the Eternal by matthew c. hoffman

“Gods and Goddesses walked the earth in Hollywood sixty years ago, in the mythology of the movies. They walked right through the Great Depression and the worst war the world has ever seen. Much of what we think of as glamour of that time comes to us by way of the studio portrait photographers. They used light to create illusion. The stars were real people transformed into myths by the studios. Names were changed, pasts rewritten and always sweetened, faces and bodies made stunning by costumers and retouchers. The movie itself was only a passing story, while the great studio portraits were romanticized ideals caught frozen in time: lasting objects of perfection to hold in your hands.” ~ Tom Zimmerman, Light and Illusion (1998)

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(Joan Crawford by George Hurrell)

“I photographed better than I looked, 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.” ~ Joan Crawford to Hollywood photography historian John Kobal

In its golden age, the Hollywood movie machine excelled at creating and marketing stars. Actors and actresses became icons of fashion, glamour, and etiquette. Their faces graced the covers of numerous fan magazines. They were representations of who we wanted to be. They were, simply, our dreams.

Tightly controlled by the studio, the image of the star was separated from the realm we live in. How actors were staged and positioned in photos tapped into something deeper within us. Behind the surface gloss was a suggestion of the immortal. Stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard were always unreachable– unobtainable through diffused lighting and striking poses. Their aura suggested some other plane. They had a mystique that was unassailable by common elements. What they inspired was transcendence in us.

The allure resonates in our age because there are no stars anymore– not as they once were anyway; our society no longer believes in that ethereal glow. Today’s all-too-human personalities have been lowered to reality by the modern photographer: the paparazzi. We bring people down instead of elevating them. Thus, there is nothing deeper in the digital images we see every day. The image becomes superficial and commonplace.

No one captured the mystique better than the great portrait and still photographers who operated within the studio system. All the studios– from the majors like MGM down to the minors like Columbia– used portrait photographers as part of their publicity department. The department had a Stills Photos unit which was divided into two groups: the Stills section (which took production photos, for instance) and the Portrait studio (such as the glamour portraits that often introduced new stars).

Throughout the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, their lenses captured extraordinary moments and faces. They recorded the essence of what we imagine Hollywood to be. The general public may not know the stories of the men behind those cameras, but their work is timeless. It is through these collections of photos that the studio photographer will be remembered.

The following are some of the key figures in the business who have left us a visual record of Tinseltown star-making. In their darkrooms stars were born. George Hurrell was certainly the best-known of these photographers. For those wanting to learn more, there are several books about him such as Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits by Mark A. Vieira. Photographers like him turned Hollywood portraiture into an art form.

Ernest A. Bachrach (1899-1973)

Gloria Swanson
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Gwili Andre
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Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896-1979) Head of the MGM stills department. One of his greatest subjects, Greta Garbo, posed for 4,000 photos.

Greta Garbo
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Joan Marsh
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Otto Dyar (1892-1988)

Madeleine Carroll
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Sylvia Sidney
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Elmer Fryer (1898-1944)

Alice White
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Joan Blondell
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George Hurrell (1904-1992) Best known for his photography of MGM’s biggest stars.

John Barrymore
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Fay Wray
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Ray Jones (1900-1975) Head of Universal’s still photography. See Light and Illusion by Tom Zimmerman for more.

Claudette Colbert
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Sigrid Gurie
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Ruth Harriet Louise (1903-1940) Chief MGM portrait photographer (1925-1930) until George Hurrell replaced her.

Joan Crawford
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Eugene Robert Richee (1896-1972) Still photographer at Paramount (1925-1935).

Carole Lombard
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Claudette Colbert
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