Book review

The Art Of The Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers 1925 to 1940 by John Kobal
Published by Allen Lane, London, 1980

Reviewed by WILLIAM DART

The genre of glamour photography is one that Hollywood virtually invented and carefully nurtured; and it reached its peak in the nineteen thirties. With the following decade and the Second World War, the studios were looking for stereotypes rather than individuals, and the work lacked the excitement and artistry of the earlier period. Kobal's study examines the rise of the portrait photographer and discusses the individual work of some of the more important figures.

ERNST BACHRACH Joel McCrea 1932

These men were far from being anonymous hacks. Of all artists they worked in unique conditions. They were given almost limitless access and resources in order to collaborate with an extraordinary model in creating a 'transcendental image that could take on almost symbolic proportions to millions of fans all over the western world.

There was Ernest Bachrach, with his haunting portraits of the beauty of the youthful Dolores Del Rio, and equally stunning 'Pierrot' series of young Katharine Hepburn. (whom Kobal describes as being 'as serenely lovely as Del Rio, as gloriously handsome as Joel McCrea, and as enigmatic as Garbo').

Ruth Harriet Louise, the only woman photographer included, is represented by a number of the intense portraits that made her famous: the intensity gained through their being a section of a much larger pc)rtrait blown up several times.

George Hurrell is one of the most interesting, as well as the most innovative, with his photographs of subjects with little or no make-up - often lit with just one spotlight. Hurrell was Joan Crawford's photographer for almost ten years and their work together shows the fine stills that could be made when subject and photographer approached the session in a creative way.

Kobal's interviews with both cameramen and stars offer interesting sidelights on the problems of a cameraman. Not all were as co-operative as Crawford and Harlow, who positively revelled in their photographic sessions and treated them as seriously as they would a film role. Some had physical problems - such as Norma Shearer's strabismus, which meant the actress couldn't look directly into the camera without appearing crosseyed. Others, like Miriam Hopkins, carried the tradition of the temperamental film star from film set to photography studio.

There are some striking contrasts in the attitudes of the actors. Humphrey Bogart hated his photography sessions, considering it 'sissy stuff', and Spencer Tracy limited his sessions to a business-like ten minutes. David Niven was so unforthcoming that he made photographer Bob Coburn feel 'like a dentist with an awkward child'. But the males could be as aware of their image as any actress. We learn of James Cagney accentuating his eyes and eyebrows with discreet make-up; and Errol Flynn applying 'virile tan from a jar'. And then there was the autocratic pressure of studio, which would force hirsute actors to have chests shaved, and insist that Robert Taylor undertake an intensive bodybuilding course when his initial image seemed too effeminate.

Kobal's book is sumptuously illustrated with Duotone photographs. It is written with style and wit; and it contributes a thorough piece of research in an interesting area of the photographic art. My favourite assessment is Kobal's delightful description of a Rita Hayworth portrait as 'Wedekind's Lulu without the final sting'.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 21 Spring 1981