The Hollywood Portrait Photographers

The Hollywood Portrait Photographers

The Hollywood Portrait 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


The icons of Hollywood are mostly gone now but remain vividly alive on the screen where spectacular personalities and faces continue to entertain. Star countenances also remain vibrant in the magnificent portraits and publicity photographs that once saturated magazines and newspapers. From the 1910s through the 1940s, fan magazines were among the most widely circulated periodicals, with covers, depicting favorites, dominating newsstands around the world. Icons of Hollywood provides a glimpse back in time to the heyday of the studio photograph – the silver print that helped immortalize the faces on the silver screen. Robert Dance, from Hollywood Icons (ACC Editions, 2016)


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. 


" one, including the men, ever said, "This isn't me."" - Laszlo Willinger 


Like so many stories about John Kobal, the one about his notable role as a connoisseur, collector and chronicler of Hollywood photography begins with a movie star. Working as a journalist in 1969, Kobal visited the set of Myra Breckenridge with the goal of interviewing screen legend Mae West. His reporter's credentials granted him access to the set and while awaiting summons from Miss West, Kobal had the opportunity to meet members of the film's crew. Making small talk with an on-set photographer, he learned the man's name was George Hurrell. This surprised Kobal, for he recognized the name from the credit marks embossed or stamped on many of the Hollywood photographs he had collected since childhood. But those photographs were from the 1920s and 1930s, and were images of the greatest of Hollywood's stars, Davis, Garbo, Gable, Harlow. Could it be the same man almost four decades later, still practicing his craft on a movie set?

Hurrell had been shooting portraits in Hollywood since January 1930, when he began a three-year stint at MGM recording all the studio's great faces, most notably Joan Crawford. From 1938 to 1940 he was employed by Warner Brothers. Otherwise he worked independently, available to anyone who would pay his stiff fee. So extraordinary were Hurrell's photographs that he may be said to have revolutionized the depiction of Hollywood actors. His inventive use of strong contrasts of black and white gave his subjects an almost sculptural quality and added a masculinity to his male subjects that was consistent with the new tough guy image associated with stars like Gable and Cagney. His radical re-touching of his negatives' surfaces made women glow like never before. Before Hurrell, Norma Shearer was an attractive actress; in front of his lens she became a screen siren. Looking back on the photographers from the studio system's first two decades, Hurrell stands out as the best, and his transformative images have come to define an era.

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.


Published to coincide with the exhibitions:

Made in Hollywood: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 12 July - 12 October 2008;
Knoxville Museum of Art, 7 May - 27 September 2009;
Deutsches Fimmuseum, Frankfurt am Main, Winter - Spring 2011
Glamour of the Gods
National Portrait Gallery, London, July - October 2011

© Robert Dance: Published in Glamour of the Gods, Production and Printing in Germany by Steidl, Third Edition 2013. ISBN 978-3-86521-682-3