… star struck …
This exhibition brings together 90 publicity photographs, made by the big studios, of major Hollywood stars: the earliest is of Theda Bara as Cleopatra of 1917, and the latest of Elizabeth Taylor — not as Cleopatra (that would have been fun) – but as Barbara in Ash Wednesday (a woman driven to plastic surgery to keep hold of her husband), dated 1974.
Theda Bara as Cleopatra, by Albert Witzel, 1917, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8". Photo: Grolier Club
These are ultra large format gelatin silver prints and required great effort and expense to produce but evidently the studios thought they were worth it — I learned at an introductory Discussion that at one point MGM employed 500 people just to turn out the prints, and hundred of thousands of prints were made at "astounding" cost. These went to magazines, newspapers and elsewhere and, reduced in size and autographed before printing were sent to fans who wrote in requesting them.
But why are most of the photos of female stars? That excellent question was asked by someone in the audience during that Discussion presented by Ann H. Hoy, Robert Dance and film director Paul Morrissey, and the response was that "day-long photo sessions" lie behind these photos and the male stars didn't have the patience or interest in posing to do them. Yet the star power and popularity of the male stars – without such a stream of publicity photos — equaled that of the female stars, which leaves open some questions well worth pursuing: just what was the –evidently great — impact of the studio publicity photos? and on whom? And why were they so valuable to the studios? Any ideas?
Ramon Novarro and May McAvoy, for Ben Hur attributed to Warren Lynch, 1925, geltin silver print, 13 x 10". Photo: Grolier Club
A valuable aspect of the exhibition is that while highlighting movie stars, it also brings out the specific talents of the photographers whose names, perhaps with the exception of Edward Steichen, even film buffs aren't likely to know. The photographers didn't sign the photos but, through their work played a part in creating that sense of linked personality and image — that persona that helped to emblazon the stars in the popular imagination. Thus there are photographs Ruth Harriet Louise made of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford with Robert Montgomery, and others grouped so as to give a sense of the photographer's presence and individuality. Photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull photographed Lillian Gish in 1917, Greta Garbo in 1931 and Hedy Lamarr around 1942. You can read in the informative catalog essay how photographer George Hurrell enabled Norma Shearer to become a star.
Norma Shearer by George Hurrell, 1930, gelatin silver print, 13 x 10". Photo: Grolier Club
The photographs are beautifully printed, often with the fine resolution and subtle chiaroscuro large format makes possible. A few show the effects of time and the instability of the gelatin silver process, while remaining effective.
I find, though, that for all the skill, there's a thinness in the glamour posturing and patent manufacture of personality. It's a playing with surface – lots of chiaroscuro but not much depth. And how much more vital and communicative it is to see these actors in dramatic contexts, hard at work in their films, creating for us not mere image but characterizations!
But publicity photos are significant and omnipresent in our culture and, thanks to Robert Dance making them available, Silver Screen Silver Prints lets you see original prints of some rare images that strike chords of resonant cultural memories.
The illustrated Catalog is by the Curator Ann H. Hoy, Art Historian and author of The Book of Photography, published by National Geographic in 2005. Silver Screen Silver Prints, free and open to the public, will be on view at the Grolier Club through November 11. For further information, click on live link of exhibition title.
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