Marlon Brando for Streetcar Named Desire, 1950 by John Engstead © John Kobal Foundation, 2011Last Wednesday I went down to the National Portrait Gallery to view the iconic new exhibition, Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits. As a massive fan of the Golden Age of cinema (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned countless times), this exhibition is an amazing catalogue in who’s who of Hollywood heavyweights, and featured all of my favourite legends; from the smouldering Rita Hayworth as Gilda (1946), Marlon Brando for Streetcar Named Desire (1950, pictured above), Joan Crawford for Grand Hotel (1932), and Charlie Chaplin for The Kid (1921).
Louise Brooks, 1929 by Eugene Robert Richee © John Kobal Foundation, 2011
All taken from the John Kobal Foundation, this breathtaking exhibition features over 70 vintage photographs (mainly in black and white), spanning over 40 years (roughly 1920-60). With nearly 40 photographers work on display (mainly that of studio photographers), including Clarence Sinclair Bull, Laszlo Willinger, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise, the most iconic images to my eye included glossy portraits of screen sirens; Norma Shearer, Veronica Lake, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford all by the master, George Hurrell.
Marlene Dietrich on the set of Manpower, 1941 by Laszlo Willinger © John Kobal Foundation, 2011The exhibition shows both iconic and previously unseen studio portraits of legends such as Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young, and Carole Lombard among others. These portraits are shown alongside film scene stills (often used for posters and lobby cards), including Lillian Gish for The Wind, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for Swing Time and James Dean for Rebel without a Cause. The most controversial images I saw were of a relatively unknown Marilyn Monroe circa 1949; whose nudes shot by Tom Kelly made it into the inaugural issue of Playboy in 1953, causing much outrage, for the now famous Hollywood startlet.
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford for Dancing Lady, 1933 by George Hurrell © John Kobal Foundation, 2011The film studios in Hollywood between 1920 and 1960 exercised an extraordinary level of control over the imagery of the stars they represented. The portraits they released to the public and press depicted the actors as glamorous and inaccessible, imbuing them with mystique, perpetuating the myth of screen gods and goddesses. These archive images depict a time before paparazzi, and these photographs distributed by the studios were the only vehicle of connection between stars and fans. Thousands of photographs would be sent out worldwide by the studios both to fans and to the best-selling publications.
John Kobal (1940-1991 – whose foundation provided all of the images on display) was a collector and author who methodically sought to understand the role of photography in the making of a Hollywood legend. He began collecting film photographs in the 1950s, visiting Los Angeles frequently when many of the major studios were being bought by corporations who cared little for preserving the history of the film industry.
At first his interest was solely in the stars and their films but his interest began to shift to the photographers behind the portraits, many of whom were still alive and accessible at this time. Kobal tracked down the surviving members of the circle of great Hollywood photographers and through a series of major exhibitions and books sought to attain for them the recognition they deserved. As a result, the significance of the Hollywood photographers is now widely acknowledged for their contribution to both the film industry and twentieth century photographic portraiture.
Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits is showing until 23 October.