This new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
examines the importance of photography in creating the stars of Hollywood from 1920 to 1960. Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits, Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation
includes portraits of Marlene Dietrich, James Dean, Joan Collins, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe by nearly 40 photographers including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Laszlo Willinger, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise. This exhibition is on view from July 7 until October 23, 2011.
Nearly all of the photographs in the exhibition are vintage prints drawn from the archive of the John Kobal Foundation. This is a rare opportunity to view these important artifacts of a now extinct Hollywood studio system. The exhibition shows both iconic and previously unseen studio portraits of Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young, and Carole Lombard among others. These portraits are shown alongside film scene stills including Lillian Gish for The Wind, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for Swing Time and James Dean for Rebel without a Cause. Stills photographs which were used for lobby cards and posters and had to encapsulate the film plot, or be powerful and dramatic enough to attract film-goers in just one image.
The film studios in Hollywood between 1920 and 1960 exercised an extraordinary level of control over the image 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. The photographers in this exhibition were the leading photographers employed by the studios to shoot and oversee the star portraits. The exhibition includes portraits by Davis Boulton, one of the few British photographers working for the Hollywood studios, and Ruth Harriet Louise, the only woman to run a studio photo gallery. Often stars would build up a relationship with a photographer as was the case with Greta Garbo and Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Joan Crawford and George Hurrell. This was 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 publications. To enable the photographs to be reproduced as widely as possible for publicity they were stamped copyright free, which resulted in the names of many pivotal studio photographers remaining uncredited for creating timeless and career-defining portraits.
John Kobal (1940-1991) was a collector and author who methodically sought to understand the role of photography in the 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 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 gain 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.