In my last post I wrote about my efforts to preserve Vivien Leigh’s snapshot albums for posterity. Now I’ve reached the stage where I’m attempting to identify the unrecognisable (to me) people in the images. This is part of the cataloguing process. The goal is to record as much information as possible about the content of the images whilst digitising them. Unfortunately, very few of the images have identifying information written on the back and the handful of people I have shown the albums to have also been unable to supply any names.
I’ve been collecting original Vivien Leigh (and Laurence Olivier, but mostly Vivien) memorabilia in earnest for about 10 years now. It began with vintage fan magazines and playbills, and gradually morphed into a focus on original photographs. For some reason I’m not really fussed about clothing, trinkets, or other 3D objects. It’s always been paper for me. Through collecting Vivien Leigh photos I’ve gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of photography in the mid-20th century and I’m particularly drawn to candid press photographs and snapshots – images that pull back the curtain on the glamorous public facade and show Vivien and those around her just being.
You may not know this, but Laurence Olivier adored Natalie Wood. They worked together in 1976 on a TV version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which she starred as Maggie, with her then-husband Robert Wagner as Brick and Olivier as Big Daddy. In those later years when he was in Hollywood, Larry spent quite a bit of time with Natalie and Robert, who were both in awe of him. Larry and Natalie talked of acting and life and a certain person, undoubtedly. As Wagner wrote in his autobiography, Pieces of My Heart,
Natalie was passionate on the subject of Vivien Leigh, her favorite actress, and the movies she would watch over and over again were Gone With the Wind and, particularly, A Streetcar Named Desire. God, she loved that movie, and she loved all of Tennessee Williams – his particular poetic take on damaged souls.
In her book Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, biographer Suzanne Finstad elaborates on the relationship between Larry and Natalie:
[Natalie] compared acting with Olivier to starring with James Dean, describing them both as “fluid.”
Olivier was “insane about Natalie,” according to their costar Maureen Stapleton. Olivier, ironically, was in awe of Natalie’s beauty, the very thing Vivien Leigh, her idol and his ex-wife, worried overshadowed her reputation as a serious actress.
Larry was often invited on sailing excursions aboard the Wagner’s yacht, the Splendour, where the above photograph was taken. There are so many things I love about this picture: Natalie’s hat, her Espadrilles, her whole boho ensemble, Larry trying to capture her with his Polaroid, what appears to be Catalina in the background, the fact that they’re just sitting there. Together. On a boat. No big deal. The Wagners accompanied Larry to the Century City premiere of the film A Little Romance in 1979, so it is likely the photo was snapped around that time.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my interest in researching and writing about Vivien Leigh has not waned, but I am also eager to expand my knowledge on different subjects. So I was really excited when the Programs Manager at the WDFM invited me to give a talk about the history of glamour photography. Although I’ve loved looking at Hollywood glamour photographs since I first became a fan of classic films, I was less familiar with the details of their importance and the lives of the artists behind the cameras. I chose to highlight three photographers that represented three different eras of the studio system: James Abbe (whose archive I’ve been digitizing and cataloguing since January), George Hurrell, and Laszlo Willinger. The research was a lot of fun and the presentation itself went down pretty well, so I hope you enjoy it too!
Written and presented by Kendra Bean
Walt Disney Family Museum, April 11, 2015
Among all of the great Hollywood portrait photographers, George Hurrell is arguably the most famous and is considered by collectors and historians to be the best in the business. It was his photos that actually inspired the term “glamour photography.” In 1936, Esquire magazine claimed, “A Hurrell portrait is to the ordinary publicity still what a Rolls Royce is to a roller skate.”
Hurrell was born into a large Catholic family Cincinnati. Following two of his siblings, he initially enrolled in a seminary in Chicago after completing high school, with the intent of becoming a priest. But, he said, “As long as I can remember I wanted to be an artist. As a boy, I was drawing all the time, in school and out.” So he decided to study at the Art Institute in Chicago instead.
Although painting was his subject of choice, Hurrell also worked with a camera during this time, as it was common for art students to photograph inspirational locations as well as their finished work. While at school he held a series of jobs, including acting as a colorist for Chicago portrait photographer Eugene Hutchinson who taught him valuable tricks of the trade, including negative retouching, darkroom developing and airbrushing. Still, Hurrell’s interest in taking up portrait photography as a profession came on gradually. In 1925, he attended a lecture by landscape painter Edgar Alwyn Payne and showed the artist a portfolio of his student work. Payne was impressed and encouraged Hurrell to follow him out to Laguna Beach here in California where there was a thriving fine arts community.
Hurrell continued painting but soon realized that he could make more money taking photographs of local artists and the social scene in Orange County. His most prominent patron was the wealthy, and unconventional Florence Leontine Lowe Barnes, known to her friends as Pancho. Pancho Barnes thought Hurrell’s photos were better than his paintings, so when she decided to apply for a pilot’s license, she asked Hurrell to take her photograph. Oroville Wright of the famous Wright brothers processed all pilot’s applications at that time and discouraged female hopefuls from applying. If a woman crashed a plane as opposed to a male pilot, he believed it would bring negative publicity to the aviation industry. Pancho decided to dress as a man for her photograph. Her license was approved and she later became Hollywood’s first female stunt pilot.
Pancho Barnes ended up being Hurrell’s ticket to Hollywood. She was best friends with Mexican silent film star Ramon Novarro, whose Latin accent put him at risk of becoming obsolete as Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound in the late 1920s. Novarro was nervous about his prospects for continuing his career on screen and was afraid that if anyone in the business found out, his new contract negotiations with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would fall through. He needed new publicity portraits but didn’t trust anyone actually working in Hollywood not to gossip about his fears. So Pancho suggested Novarro go down to Laguna Beach and have Hurrell take a series of photos.
Novarro was short in stature and had a drinking problem owing to the personal conflict of being a gay Catholic as well as pressure from MGM to enter into a lavender marriage, but using a second-hand 8 by 10 camera and an 18 inch portrait lens, Hurrell succeeded in transforming Novarro into the Latin lover coveted by women across the country. In these early Hurrell photographs he looks like a Greek God or a handsome prince from a Victorian painting.
Novarro was so pleased with the outcome of the photos that he showed them to his good friend Norma Shearer, who was married to MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg and looking to spice up her image in order to land the lead role in the 1930 film The Divorcee. Shearer wasn’t considered classically beautiful and in fact appeared to be a bit cross-eyed. But she was determined to prove herself otherwise, so she drove down to Laguna in her Rolls Royce and commissioned some portraits. With clever use of lighting and shadows, as well as a provocative hairstyle and clothes, Hurrell helped Shearer become sexy. She landed the role she was going for and Irving Thalberg offered Hurrell a contract with Hollywood’s biggest studio. He earned $150 per week as MGM’s first in-house portrait photographer.
Over the next three years, Hurrell worked on developing his signature style, which owed much to his painterly influences. Before going to Hollywood, Hurrell had improvised with household items such as standard light bulbs and frying pans for reflectors. Now in Hollywood he had professional equipment. He was a big fan of “Rembrandt lighting,” named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. This effect was achieved by the use of a sharp focus lens, an overhead key light or “boom” light and a spotlight angled to one side so that the sitter’s face was half cast in shadow and a triangle of light appeared beneath one eye.
Hurrell expert Mark Vieira described other facets of the photographer’s style in his recent photo retrospective George Hurrell’s Hollywood:
“His trademark effects included: Shooting a subject upside down on the floor so that her cascading dress seemed to fly up; an occasional “Dutch tilt” to throw vertical lines zanily out of plumb; using only one light, a spotlight, to shoot a subject against a white wall; elongated eyelash shadows; the placement of the boom light so that it shown down from behind, or down the part of the subject’s hair, or onto the cheekbones; a spotlight shining up from the floor; lead retouching to lighten the iris of an eye; a tiny dot of retouching ‘opaque’ to enlarge the specular highlight in each eye; using a spotlight instead of a soft light as the fill.”
The key to making a star “glamorous” was to portray them as remote and untouchable to the viewer, not more relatable. This was especially important during the Great Depression. The 1930s is often referred to as “The Golden Age of Hollywood,” when millions of Americans went to the movies on a weekly basis. Former POTUS Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it nicely when he said, “During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” It’s not surprising then, that perhaps the most popular star of the decade was not Crawford, Dietrich or Garbo, but little Shirley Temple.
Hurrell was responsible for making the close-up an integral part of glamour photography. Max Factor’s heavy pancake make-up – was all the rage in the 30s and 40s – didn’t photograph well up close, so photographers requested they wear nothing except for a bit of lipstick and mascara. Studio retouchers were responsible for smoothing over wrinkles, pores and pimples, but a trusting atmosphere had to be established between the photographer and his sitter in order to get the best pictures. Each star had to be handled differently depending on his or her personality. Hurrell drew from a bag of tricks that included everything from music to headstands in order to make his sitters comfortable. He also controlled every aspect of the shoot from wardrobe to poses. Props were used to create interest in the photos, the most famous of which was a white bearskin rug that sitters requested so often, Hurrell eventually got sick of it.
Once everything was in place the actor’s face became a canvas on which to create alluring works of art.
The biggest and most difficult task of being a studio portrait photographer was placating the egos and insecurities of some of the big names that stepped in front of his camera.
I’ll let Hurrell talk a little about that in his own words:
In the summer of 1932, Hurrell argued with MGM publicity chief Howard Strickling over the fact that he was earning extra cash by photographing stars from rival studios on weekends. Strickling won out and Hurrell took his leave from MGM. He set up his own studio on Sunset Boulevard and opened the doors to anyone who would pay his $500 session fee. Because he had established himself as a photographer who could make stars look sexy, his former clients were happy to follow him.
Hurrell may have left he biggest studio in Hollywood, but if anything, demand for his work only increased. In 1935 he went to New York to dabble in fashion photography, where he took inspiration from Cecil Beaton and George Hoyningen-Huene. Returning to Hollywood in 1937, he loaned his talents to Warner Bros and Columbia, and then joined the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Air Force during WWII. Hurrell remained in the entertainment business for the rest of his life, trying his hand at advertisement production, direction and cinematography for Walt Disney Productions, and doing freelance stills and portraits for TV shows like Gunsmoke, films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, and stars like Paul Newman and Liza Minnelli. He died in 1992, having been one of few Hollywood photographers to be celebrated in museum exhibitions during his lifetime.
It took MGM nearly five years to find a solid replacement for Hurrell. Born in Budapest in 1906, photography ran in Laszlo Willinger‘s blood. His mother was a photographer and his father owned a news agency. A quick and seemingly independent learner, he opened his own studio in Berlin at age 16, and at 19 he was living in Paris and managing the Keystone Photo Agency. Like James Abbe, Willinger started out as a photojournalist, contributing regularly to several German newspapers. When Hitler rose to power, Willinger moved to Vienna where his reputation as a portrait photographer was solidified.
It was there in the Austrian capital that he came face to face with the likes of Sigmund Freud, Max Reinhardt, and emerging film stars like Marlene Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr. By the time he signed a contract with MGM in 1937, he was already quite well known in Hollywood. His style was similar to Hurrell’s but, having worked on films at UFA in Berlin, he was likely influenced more by the haunted aesthetic of German cinema during the Weimar period than he was by any American photographers.
Inspired by German Expressionism: Geometric shapes…
Lines of light and shadow…
Harsh lighting…This picture of Hedy Lamarr is interesting because of its overt sensuality, perhaps reflecting her performance in the 1933 Czech filmEcstasy, which showed her not only nude, but also depicted a female orgasm – a subject Hollywood censors wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Laszlo knew her when.
But the concept of glamour was new to Willinger: “When I first arrived at MGM, Howard Strickling told me, ‘Everyone’s seen your pictures, you’re booked for the next six months. Make them real glamorous.'” He asked, ‘What’s glamour?’ There was a long pause. Then Strickling said, ‘Oh, you know, sort of a suffering look.’ So there wasn’t much laughing in those photos. You couldn’t have happy sex. Sex and earnestness – together those spelled glamour.”
He caught on fast, and soon was working in tandem with MGM’s other portrait photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull, to tackle the heavy workload at the studio that claimed to have “more stars than there are in heaven.” Just as Hurell had, Willinger photographed all the major and minor players under contract, and he had his favorites. It wasn’t because of their talent, necessarily – Willinger seemed to have little tolerance for actors in general, saying that “they could only function through second-hand emotions,” and that “stars had support on every level. Most of them came out of nowhere. They had no taste. Joan Crawford was a call girl. She had designer Gilbert Adrian who said, ‘You wear my dresses. Nothing else.’ They had dance instructors, dentists, hairdressers, elocution lessons. Each star had at least two publicity men permanently attached to them, not just to a specific movie. They didn’t sell movies, they sold stars.”
But he could easily separate the pros from the amateurs. His favorites were Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, because they worked with him rather than coming in with an attitude and saying “show me what you can do.” “They knew what was expected of them. These stars not only cooperated, they were eager. Some actors didn’t understand this, and you never heard from them again.”
In his heyday, Willinger photographed as many as four stars each week. “Even if a star wasn’t working, the publicity machine kept going,” he explained. “There were 400 newspapers across the country, each with two pages of shots a day. Over 30 million people bought fan magazines. Families went to the movies at least once a week. They didn’t care whether the picture was good or bad. All they were interested in was ‘Who’s in it?’ The only thing that was expected of me was to make images that the press would choose to print over everyone else’s… People ask, ‘How did you take such great pictures of Gable?’ I said, ‘First you have to start with Clark Gable! We began with very good looking people. But MGM had forty retouchers on salary. If they did three negatives a day, they were considered fast…You must realize that there were 5,000 pictures available on any major star. To get printed yours had to be the best.”
There was a method to this madness. Willinger made sure he was prepared before the sitter came into his studio. Sets were built; lighting was worked out to his specifications and the vision he had in mind for the photographs; crew was in place. There were surprisingly quite a few people on hand during a major portrait session. For example, when he photographed Vivien Leigh for the film Waterloo Bridge, he had “two electricians, one grip, one hairdresser, costumers, a second model, one makeup man and woman – in those days, men made up women’s faces, women made up from the chin down. Money was no object.”
However, even if the stars cooperated and everything went according to plan, photographers had another problem to contend with. By the time Willinger arrived in Hollywood, the Production Code, overseen by the President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will Hays, was firmly in effect. The purpose of the Production Code was to police the film industry and make sure the public wasn’t being fed material that was considered “unwholesome.” It applied to everything from violence to profanity and, of course, sex.
Here are a few examples of the regulations in this category, to give you an idea of the restrictions placed upon filmmakers:
“Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.”
“Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.”
“In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.”
Naturally, such restrictions also applied to the publicity materials used to promote the film, including photographs. If sex and earnestness were the elements of glamour, photographers had to get extra creative. Willinger found the Production Code silly: “For instance,” he said, “you couldn’t show the inside of a thigh! Ever try to photograph a dancer like Eleanor Powell and not show the inside of a thigh? You couldn’t show cleavage. What the retouchers did was make a breast that started at one shoulder and continued to the other – no shadow! Occasionally, there was a surprise. I did a portrait of Crawford where her face filled the whole frame. That was all. It came back rejected from the Hayes Office. I called and said, ‘What’s this? Nothing shows!’ They said, ‘Yes, but she could have been naked.”
Willinger left MGM in 1944 and spent the rest of his career in advertising, which seemed to suit his temperament. He said he could earn $5,000 photographing a puppy for a dog food ad, so who needs people? Looking back on his time in the film industry, Willinger considered many of the films of the ’30s and 40’s to be sub par, but when it came to the stars of yesteryear versus today, there was no comparison. To paraphrase Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, they had faces then. Today, Willinger said, stars “all look the same – like unfinished pancakes.”
James Abbe, George Hurrell and Laszlo Willinger are among the greats, but they weren’t the only photographers who worked for the studios. Ruth Harriet Louise, Ted Allen, Robert Coburn, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Bert Six and Frank Powolny were just as gifted. However it’s unlikely that any of these photographers would be very much remembered today without the tireless efforts of historian and prolific collector John Kobal.
The glamour shot went out of fashion in 1960 with the release of Federico Fellini’s Italian classic La Dolce Vita. Glamour was replaced with the rise of the paparazzi and candid photos of the stars. Around this time, the loss of audiences to TV, post-war consumerism and the Paramount Case, in which a federal decision was passed to prevent the big studios from continuing to block-book theatres around the country, saw the collapse of the entire studio system. Hollywood was rapidly changing and as often happens when a business is remodeled, it was out with the old and in with the new. With few exceptions, Hollywood has never really been a town that focuses on preserving its heritage for posterity. Perhaps because films had only been around for about 60 years, people in the business weren’t ready to consider its history. Whatever the reason was, many of the objects that made Hollywood great during its golden age were sold off or simply thrown away. This included sets, props, costumes, and even photographs, and it fell to individuals to salvage these pieces of history.
Debbie Reynolds is well known for buying up many of the costumes and props at the big 1970 MGM auction. She hoped to either sell them to an existing museum or raise money to build her own so that the collection could stay together. Sadly, neither of these ideas came to fruition and she recently sold this memorabilia piecemeal to the highest bidder.
In a similar fashion, John Kobal was responsible for assembling the largest private collection of photographs from Hollywood’s golden age. Tallulah Bankhead opened the door to Hollywood for him. “One night she called George Cukor and said ‘Dahling George…’ and after they gossiped forever, she remembered why she had called him in the first place and said, ‘I have this diviihhhne young man here, and he’s going to Hollywood and he doesn’t know anyone and you know everyone; and he’s really a most serious young man.’ She looked at me to make sure, and then mortified me by telling Cukor that I was broke ‘but presentable, dahling. And he knows everything about everybody’s movies.” He began in Hollywood as a journalist and met George Hurrell while covering a story on the set of one of Mae West’s last films, and then his obsession really took off. He established his own immense archive, collecting photos and negatives, publishing numerous books, and tracking down the photographers responsible for these works of art. A stunning selection of these photos, along with the photographers’ oral histories were compiled in Kobal’s seminal retrospective The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, which is credited for single-handedly reviving the reputations of the photographers I spoke about today.
What were once mass marketed publicity materials have now become iconic representations of a bygone era, worthy of exhibition in major museums like LACMA, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and once again highly sought after by fans of classic cinema.
I ended my talk about Vivien Leigh on Thursday [at the Presidio Officers’ Club] with a quote from John Kobal and I think it’s appropriate to end on a similar note today. He said,
“Those who choose to see the great Hollywood stars simply in terms of the conditions out of which they emerged – economic, political, social or technological – stop short of what was actually produced: of what emerged out of their existence. These portraits of the great faces of Hollywood were products of their time and were forged by a need so powerful that these images were able to transcend both their time and the need they fulfilled – something that conventional portraits, chained to their subjects and our knowledge of them, can never be. They possess a freshness and openness to be found only in children, and an intensity most common in the mad. Long after the individual reputations of the subjects of these portraits have been forgotten, their profound beauty will cause them to live on.”
Main sources and recommended reading:
“The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers” by John Kobal
As I mentioned in my last post, my interest in researching and writing about Vivien Leigh has not waned, but I am also eager to expand my knowledge on different subjects. So I was really excited when the Programs Manager at the WDFM invited me to give a talk about the history of glamour photography. Although I’ve loved looking at Hollywood glamour photographs since I first became a fan of classic films, I was less familiar with the details of their importance and the lives of the artists behind the cameras. I chose to highlight three photographers that represented three different eras of the studio system: James Abbe (whose archive I’ve been digitizing and cataloguing since January), George Hurrell, and Laszlo Willinger. The research was a lot of fun and the presentation itself went down pretty well, so I hope you enjoy it too!
How the glamour shot changed Hollywood
Written and presented by Kendra Bean
Walt Disney Family Museum, April 11, 2015
Interest in photographs of celebrities dates back almost to the invention of photography itself, and it definitely pre-dated the invention of the movies. During the American Civil War, 2 1/2 by 4″ cartes-de-visites were printed cheaply, collected en masse and traded or displayed in albums. Cartes were so popular amongst the general public that the phrase “cartomania” was coined to describe the phenomenon. Later, collectible postcards, cigarette cards and larger cabinet cards featuring famous personalities of politics, theatre and literature were also popular collectibles.
Although the concept of glamour had been part of Western culture since the 18th century, the term as applied to Hollywood came about in the 1930s to describe a style of photograph that captured the otherworldly beauty embodied by film stars. Glamour, like film stars themselves, was a carefully constructed illusion that was fed to the movie-going public, who in turn worshipped these God-like figures and fed their desires by purchasing tickets at the box office, thereby fueling the studios that produced the images to begin with.
Glamour photography wouldn’t have been possible without the formation of something called the star system. In the very early years of cinema making, there were no such things as stars. Actors in films were anonymous, or known to the public by nicknames. Take the Biograph Girl, for example. Biograph was a film company run by D. W. Griffith, the director of Birth of a Nation and one of the most famous film producers of the silent era. He cast this young woman in several films, and audiences wrote in to the studio enquiring about her real identity. Griffith refused to release such information because he, like other producers, was afraid the ensuing fame would lead the actors under contract to demand higher salaries. She remained “The Biograph Girl” until 1909 when she joined Independent Moving Pictures Company headed by Carl Laemmle, the future president of Universal. Seeing the benefit of revealing the actress’ real name, Laemmle concocted a genius publicity stunt. He started a rumor that the actress had been killed in a car accident in New York. Once the rumor picked up steam, he placed her picture in several newspapers claiming his studio had uncovered the truth: that the actress, real name Florence Lawrence, was indeed alive and well, and making a new film for Independent Moving Pictures. A personal appearance in St Louis assured her fans that she was all right and thus Florence Lawrence, with the assistance of Carl Laemmle, became the first film star.
Once the studios became wise about creating stars to sell their films, thousands of people were employed to prepare, package and promote them. Photographers were part of the publicity department. Their photographs were sold to newspapers and fan magazines by the thousands, used to promote tie-in products, and appeared on film promotional posters and lobby cards. There were two different kinds of photographs taken while films were being made. One was the scene still. These were not stills captured from an actual film but rather posed images of actors in costume recreating scenes from a film. The second was the publicity portrait, usually taken in the photographer’s studio with the star or stars in costume or plain clothes before cameras started rolling. This meant that the stars and photographers had to come prepared with knowledge of the script and characterizations in order to transmit that to the camera. Portraits were also taken between film assignments and supplied to news outlets to make sure the star remained in the public eye even when he or she wasn’t currently on the big screen.
The whole enterprise was carefully planned out in advance. Historian John Kobal explained the preparation that went into running a publicity campaign:
“A campaign meeting was called before every picture was begun. There might be eight films in production at once, and one publicist and two assistants were assigned to each. Someone responsible for putting the campaign together would be there from the photography department to ask questions. What’s the film about? Are the costumes going to be of particular interest? The sets? How’s the star going to look? The meetings covered magazine and newspaper stories – what photos, spreads, and off-stage portraits would be used to sell the film?
“Once the copy for a campaign was approved, it was sent to the planting department. Five people did nothing but place [or plant] stories in newspapers and magazines; these had some factual basis but were generally puff pieces…The ‘planters’ worked closely with the editors and would get them to use photographs of up-and-coming stars in return for exclusive photographs of established stars. Ideal Publications put out five or six fan magazines for which the studio portrait gallery was always taking photos.”
The studio bosses also understood how important fans were to keeping their industry going. Magazines often included forms that readers could fill out to receive 8 x 10 photographs of their favorite actors, and portraits (usually signed by secretaries) were mailed out by the thousands. In fact, a star’s standing at a particular studio largely hinged on how much fan mail they received. So it was a real give and take system and the photographers played a central role.
During the silent film era, before the big studios conglomerated, producers often employed one photographer to cover all of the bases. Madison Lacy, who later worked for Warner Bros. but started in Hollywood around 1916, described what it was like to work in Hollywood during the very early years:
“When I first started out, you handled slates, loaded cameras, timed the shots, fero-tagged the fero-tag tin, dried the prints, loaded, made copies. We had to develop our own prints, which we did in a piro soup that made our hands as black as coal, because on the set you don’t always have the lights you like, so in your printing you learned to burn in something that’s very hot or hold back something when there isn’t enough light. You also had to do your own retouching. Anything at all that had to be done, you did.”
Another photographer who filled this multi-disciplinary role was James Abbe.
I wanted to talk a bit about this particular photographer because I’m currently helping his estate digitize and catalogue his archive. The James Abbe Archive, based in San Francisco and Redding, California, consists of approximately 5,000 objects ranging from original prints to negatives (including glass), letters, newspaper cuttings, radio shows and the unpublished manuscript for his autobiography. The scope of this archive has great cultural significance. Abbe was both a portrait photographer and photojournalist. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as Vanity Fair, Shadowland, the New York Times, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and Vu.
Jenny Abbe and photographs curator Terence Pepper sort through Abbe’s photos in New York.
James Abbe was born in Alfred, Maine, in 1883. His father, James Sr., worked in the book trade and moved the family south to Newport News, Virginia where he opened his own store. It was here at age 12 that the young James Abbe became interested in photography. After seeing his sister’s boyfriend with a portable Kodak camera, Abbe convinced his father to start selling cameras and other photographic equipment to his customers. Acquiring an Eastman Kodak pocket camera, Abbe could often be found snapping pictures of interest around town. His atmospheric shots of the shipyards, troops going off to fight in the Spanish-American War, and other topics of local intrigue earned him the nickname “the boy photographer of Newport News.”
At 23, Abbe went professional when he was contracted by the Washington Post to visually document the Great White Fleet of American battleships traveling to England and France in effort to impress (and possibly to intimidate) Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. An image of the battleship USS North Dakota trudging through a storm tossed sea in the Bay of Biscay was snatched up by several European publications.
The Washington Post assignment was a success, but as anyone who has tried to make a career out of freelancing knows, you often have to supplement it with other work until you can make it into a career of its own. Returning from Europe, Abbe was offered a job at the J.P. Bell publishing company in Lynchburg, Virginia and during this time began experimenting with portraiture using subjects from the nearby Randolph-Macon Women’s College, which were published in the College annuals. It wasn’t long before Abbe had built up enough confidence in his portraiture to show a portfolio of his work to editors of major magazines like Vanity Fair. In 1917, encouraged by the response, he moved with his wife and three children to New York where he set up an independent photographic studio on West 67th Street.
Abbe was influenced by and took inspiration from the best of the best. During his lifetime, Edward Steichen was considered one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. He excelled in many areas, including fashion, advertising, nature, documentary and war photography. His portrait subjects ranged from Gloria Swanson to Henri Matisse to James Abbe’s daughter Patience. He was also one of the first photographers to experiment with color, and worked for a time as the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The interwar period saw photographic technology and experimentation grow by leaps and bounds. Steichen, along with many European photographers, employed the ideas of New Objectivity, an artistic movement that flourished in Germany during the 1920s. Unlike the abstract Expressionist movement, New Objectivity as applied to photography moved away from the dreamy and romantic, and instead produced sharply focused, objective images. Like Steichen, James Abbe would apply similar ideas to his portraits.
In the 1910s, the fledgling American film industry was split between Los Angeles and the East Coast. As a freelancer in New York, not bound by exclusive contracts, Abbe was free to photograph at his leisure and commercialize his work by selling prints to several different publications, often being paid twice for having the same photo published in different magazines. Abbe photographed the dancers of the Ziegfeld and Greenwich Village Follies, and film stars like Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova, Fred and Adele Astaire and Mae West using both studio and location settings. One of his 1919 portraits of Broadway star Jeanne Eagels was the first photograph to land the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Most of the famous Hollywood photographers had working relationships with one or two stars that solidified their reputations. George Hurrell had Joan Crawford. Clarence Sinclair Bull of MGM had Greta Garbo. Bob Coburn at the Goldwyn Studios had British actress Merle Oberon. And James Abbe had Lillian Gish.
They first worked together when Abbe was commissioned to photograph Gish in costume for the 1919 D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms. Gish always played the pure and angelic waif in her films. Frail and hauntingly beautiful, her characters often endured intense suffering. In Broken Blossoms, she plays Lucy Burrows, a young girl living in London’s gritty East End. After suffering at the abusive hands of her alcoholic father, Lucy meets a kind-hearted Chinese man (played by white actor Richard Barthelmess) who takes her in and nurses her back to health. They fall in love, but it ends in tragedy. Throughout the film, Gish’s expressions of solemn sadness and fear are cleverly captured in an array of close-ups. In fact Gish became so famous for close-up shots that when she starred in the 1987 film The Whales of August, director Lindsay Anderson told her after one particular take that she had given him a perfect close-up. Her co-star Bette Davis supposedly quipped: “She should. The bitch invented them.”
In her heyday, Lillian Gish was one of the most recognizable faces in silent films. She also had a lot of control over what films she appeared in and who she worked with. Abbe’s photos for Broken Blossoms perfectly capture Gish’s virginal innocence. The serene, Madonna-like pose and speaks of the image she projected on screen, while the mid-length shot, theatrical flowers and fan recall the romanticism of the Edwardian era from which Gish emerged.
Gish liked Abbe’s photos so much that she requested him for several other films, including Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, and The White Sister, during which Abbe served as both stills and portrait photographer. The White Sister is particularly notable because it was filmed in Italy and the desert of Lybia rather than at a studio in the United States. This meant that Abbe had to lug his big camera to locations like Mount Vesuvius. He even had a bit part in the film, playing a dying Italian soldier. But perhaps his biggest contribution to the film and to cinema history (aside from his wonderful photographs), was his discovery of British actor Ronald Colman, who was hired to play Lillian Gish’s love interest and went on to become a major star bridging the perilous gap between silent and talking pictures.
Abbe’s experience in the film industry extended to Los Angeles, as well. At the encouragement of Gish, Griffith and other New York acquaintances, he travelled west to try his luck in Hollywood and in 1920 and 1922 he produced what amounted to a broad survey of life and work in the fledgling movie capital. “Show business, in which I was up to my eyes, does not allow for delayed or cancelled appointments,” he said. “ Any who have ever been in the acting of producing business, on stage or in the movies, soon learn that time is of the essence. Punctuality is a necessity rather than a virtue. Only a few stars, regarded as irreplaceable or temporarily indispensible, can be tardy. Over the years I found show business people dependable, considerate, and easy to get along with. Mary Pickford once posed for three hours on her Hollywood set after a day’s work making a movie when it was her birthday.” “Charlie Chaplin was, and probably still is, a tight wad,” Abbe noted. “ None of the others on the Sennett lot was a spendthrift, but on the other hand, none was willing to go to the extremes Charlie Chaplin did, paying the lowest possible salaries while amassing fortunes.”
As a freelancer, Abbe’s work appeared in various fan publications, most notably Photoplay and the very popular arts magazine Shadowland. He also formed a close friendship with producer Mack Sennett who turned out comedies at his Keystone Studios in Los Angeles. Abbe was hired to work 10-hour days at $500 a week photographing Sennett’s famous Bathing Beauties, and even got hired to direct and produce his own feature film. Stills from the picture survive, but according to a major study by the Library of Congress, 70% of the silent films made in the United States are now considered lost, and Abbe’s film Home Talent is unfortunately one of them.
Abbe left the United States in 1923 and settled in Europe where he turned his attention back to photojournalism and news reportage. Traveling through England, France, Germany and Russia, he photographed Louise Brooks, the quintessential flapper then in Europe enjoying a lucrative collaboration with German film director G.W. Pabst; John Barrymore backstage during his landmark run as Hamlet in London. He found Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in Paris, and even photographed Hitler and Stalin in Munich and Moscow, respectively. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, Abbe managed to keep his finger firmly on the pulse of culture and politics during this rapidly changing time. And although his time in the film industry was but a small part in a much broader career, his photos of the top stars of the silent screen are what he is most remembered for today.
Stay tuned for part 2 of How the glamour shot changed Hollywood…