Shooting Stars

The great Hollywood portrait photographs are like close-ups that never end. Cinema is an art of faces, and the chance to gaze at them, to get lost in them, may be the deepest thrill movies offer. In the darkness of the theater these faces are vast, glowing, isolated, but fugitive; still photographs extend these moments, make them permanent. Hollywood grasped this value early on, in the days when after their runs in theaters films would often vanish forever. Images could not be called up by the millions on the internet, or easily plucked from the flow of a movie with a screen grab. Fans had to buy magazines or write to their favorite stars and request a signed photo, to be cherished like a literal icon. Stars and photographers collaborated to create these pictures, to achieve the right balance of the godlike and the human, of mystery and sensuous appeal. Every studio had its own department churning out stills and portraits, turning its contract players into graven images suitable for worship. MGM, the studio most invested in promoting its pantheon of stars, led the way in developing the art of Hollywood glamour photography, which is to movies as the movies are to real life: a distilled, perfected essence. Even stars look like this only in their dreams.

Photogenesis: Making Stars at MGM

In 1925, a twenty-two-year old woman named Ruth Harriet Louise became the chief portrait photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Born Ruth Goldstein in New York City, the daughter of a rabbi, she had opened her own photography studio in New Brunswick while she was still a teenager. “Won’t you visit my studio, and let me perpetuate your personality?” one of her advertisements enticed. In an essay she wrote in 1922 for a local newspaper, the Banner, she argued that good photographs possess a soul, and that that best kind of picture “strikes you right between the eyes and makes you gasp for breath.” This romantic vision, backed up by solid technique, enabled her rapid rise in Hollywood, where she had followed her cousin, the actress Carmel Myers, and her brother, the future director Mark Sandrich. That Louise was chic and movie-star beautiful herself cannot have hurt. The idea of Hollywood studios having their own in-house still photographers was fairly new; Clarence Sinclair Bull had arrived at Goldwyn Studios in 1920 to head the stills department, and retained his job when Goldwyn merged with Metro to form MGM, where he would remain until 1956. During his tenure, Louise, George Hurrell, and László Willinger would each take a turn as the studio’s top portrait photographer.

Top of post: Jean Harlow, photographed by George Hurrell
This image: Ruth Harriet Louise

While they all served the same goal—perpetuating the personalities of stars or would-be stars—each photographer had a distinctive style. Hurrell’s high-contrast lighting, hard edges, and bold, art deco poses became the essence of 1930s glamour. Louise was more interested in drama and individuality; she favored full-length studies, often using costumes and sets to suggest narrative and character. Bull liked tight close-ups with a dreamy, introspective quality. Willinger was one of the first to use color for star portraits. But their artistry behind the camera was only half of it; wrangling the stars was their most delicate task.

“It was very hard work,” Loretta Young recalled of posing for portraits and stills, “because you were acting all the time and your concentration was intense, yet you felt you were being dissected.” Ernest Bachrach, the head of RKO’s photography department, affirmed that many stars were “painfully self-conscious and camera shy in the portrait gallery.” Without scripts or roles to hide behind, they felt exposed; photographers devised various methods—playing music, providing martinis—to help them relax and open up. Certain stars were difficult or dismissive of the process, tormenting photographers by being bossy (Hedy Lamarr), uncooperative (Miriam Hopkins), or grouchy (Veronica Lake). Some men considered it effeminate and embarrassing to be fussed over for the sake of an attractive photo. Spencer Tracy would stay for no more than ten minutes and refused to do anything but turn his head from side to side; photographer Bob Coburn described David Niven as being like a nervous child at the dentist, “he was so afraid of revealing himself.”

Other stars adored posing, and formed close and fruitful collaborations with particular photographers. Katharine Hepburn attributed her enjoyment of portrait sessions to “sheer vanity,” but spoke about them with shrewdness and honesty: “I photographed better than I looked, 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. Once you get in front of the camera, it’s not how you look that’s important, it’s how you come across.” It goes without saying that there is an art to being photographed, but that art is not easy to define. It is not enough to be good-looking, or even to master the tricks of presenting one’s best angles under the most flattering lighting; those things can only render a beautiful object, and some of the handsomest stars—Robert Taylor, for instance—make rather boring, statue-like subjects. The art is to make something “come across,” to convey a feeling, a thought, a liveliness, a moment.

“For some actors, the work of posing was central not only to the development of their personas but to their relationship with the camera, their understanding of how to communicate through it.”

The camera loves them, we say of stars like Hepburn, and it may be equally true that they loved the camera back. Something happened when they were in front of it—something that cannot be separated from their acting for the movie camera. The primary purpose of Hollywood glamour photography was to sell stars, to present them as desirable commodities, all plush and polished chrome. But for some actors, the work of posing was central not only to the development of their personas but to their relationship with the camera, their understanding of how to communicate through it. These few are, in John Kobal’s word, “transfigured” by the lens: not captured, as we often say of photographs, but set free.

It is the incandescent Jean Harlow, in photographs by Hurrell, to whom Kobal applies this word. If you look up photogenic in the dictionary, the first meaning is “forming an attractive subject for photography or having features that look well in a photograph,” and the second is, “producing or emitting light . . . luminiferous, phosphorescent.” Harlow illustrates the second meaning. Lacking the perfect features of Hedy Lamarr or Dolores del Rio, she is far more alive and engaging in photographs. Light seems to radiate from her translucent skin, her platinum hair, and her white silk gown. There is nothing stiff or artificial about her; she is caught in the midst of some white-hot rapture that is at once erotic and innocently, humorously joyful. László Willinger recounted how when he arrived from Germany, already an experienced photographer, he did not know the English word glamour, and publicity boss Howard Strickling told him, “You know, sort of a suffering look.” As a result, he recalled, “There wasn’t much laughing in these photos. You couldn’t have happy sex.” Unless you were Harlow, who epitomizes laughing, un-self-serious passion. (Photographer Ted Allen recalled how the uninhibited star surprised him by shedding her clothes during a photo shoot, reasoning, he supposed, that being turned on would inspire him to take better pictures.)

Norma Shearer is in many ways Harlow’s opposite, but she too was a woman transformed by the camera. Shearer was intensely conscious of her physical flaws: a slight cast in one eye, short and rather pudgy limbs. Fiercely ambitious, she studied ways to disguise these shortcomings and emphasize her best assets, like her flawless patrician profile. While she was notoriously controlling of her image, she has an undeniable effervescence and come-hither warmth in her best photographs. With her power as the wife of producer Irving Thalberg, she got Ruth Harriet Louise replaced by George Hurrell in 1929 because she felt that Hurrell was able to make her look sexy, where Louise only made her look ladylike. Willinger (Hurrell’s successor), who shot publicity stills for The Women (1939), told how the famous rivalry between Shearer and Joan Crawford manifested in each of them rejecting scores of photos in which they appeared together, and circling the block in their cars when the full cast was called in to shoot stills—neither wanting to arrive at the studio before the other.

Norma Shearer, photographed by George Hurrell

Thalberg firmly believed that movies depended for success on appealing to women; men, he argued, would go to films favored by their wives or girlfriends, but not vice versa. Though Thalberg died in 1936, his philosophy still governed movies like The Women, with its all-female cast under the wing of “woman’s director” George Cukor. It also influenced the way that women stars were photographed: not merely as objects of male desire, but as vehicles for female fantasy: fantasies of beauty and fashion, of confidence and youth, of radiance and transfiguration. Reportedly, eighty percent of the ninety thousand letters Greta Garbo received each month came from women.

Garbo and Joan Crawford, in their very different ways, were two of the supreme virtuosos at the art of being photographed. Their still portraits were sometimes more exciting than their films—one might even say, no pun intended, more moving. Viewed en masse, these pictures form a kind of movie in which we can watch a woman learning, frame by frame, how to become her truest image.


Unsolved Mystery: Greta Garbo

It is tempting to call Greta Garbo’s photographic portraits the true masterpieces of her career, more than any of her films. Louise Brooks wrote that when she thought of Garbo it was always “staring mysteriously into the camera. She is a still picture—unchangeable.”

Garbo guarded her image far more tightly than most stars, refusing publicity shots of her at home or on the town. After an early blunder when MGM sent her to be photographed in shorts with the USC track team—pegging her as a hearty, athletic Swede—she vowed that once she got to be a big star, she would not tolerate such humiliating stunts. Louise was the first American photographer to develop a sustained relationship with Garbo, and she established key techniques: shooting her in silhouette, to emphasize her profile, or reclining with her head back to show off her swan-like throat, or gazing upward in private exaltation. As Louise got the hang of photographing Garbo, she stripped off the exotic trappings of the “vamp” with which the studio had encumbered her to unveil a pure, almost androgynous beauty.

“In some mystical way, Garbo was able to transcend the stillness of a pose—even the stillness of a photograph—and keep moving within it.”

The actress’s longest working relationship was with Clarence Sinclair Bull, who viewed their collaborations as so central to his career that he titled his memoir The Man Who Shot Garbo. He describes the intense, exhausting concentration that she believed was “necessary to get emotion over to the still camera.” During their sittings she would pad around the studio barefoot, moving constantly to a soundtrack of pop music on the radio, and he would simply wait until he liked a pose and quickly set up a shot; such was their rapport that she could read his face and he never needed to tell her when to hold still. “Most people’s expressions tend to freeze and become unnatural when they pose,” Bull observed, “but hers did not.” She could hold still for as long as a minute and a half without tiring or stiffening, he marveled, allowing him to make long exposures with very low light. For Queen Christina (1933), he photographed her illuminated only by candle flames.

In some mystical way, Garbo was able to transcend the stillness of a pose—even the stillness of a photograph—and keep moving within it. You seem to be watching an inner drama unfold, like a flower opening under your eyes so slowly that you can never detect the change. Bull honored the riddle of Garbo by making an irresistibly silly photomontage of her face superimposed on the Sphinx of Giza. He used a picture in which she is cocking an eyebrow, injecting a note of amused incredulity over the enterprise. (When she saw the image, he recalled, Garbo “roared with laughter.”) 

There was a side of her that only the camera could reveal. Her favorite director, Clarence Brown, noted that he was never quite satisfied with Garbo’s performances on the set, because they were only fully realized on the screen. “Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close up,” he said. “You could see thought.” She could stare directly into the camera lens without ever looking stiff or uncomfortable (something that was doubly difficult for film actors, Loretta Young explained, because they were trained never to do it with the movie camera.) When you look into Garbo’s eyes in one of Bull’s portraits, you meet a searching gaze that seems to be looking at you. While many stars appear turned inward in photographs, basking in their own radiance, Garbo looks out of the darkness with an intelligence even more beautiful than her features. 

The best way to photograph Garbo was the simplest, as many photographers realized (including Bull, Edward Steichen, and the German pictorialist Arnold Genthe, who in 1925 produced a series of smoky, charcoal-like studies that highlighted only Garbo’s face and hands against a dark robe, a plain backdrop for her operatic, wild-haired emoting.) In some of Bull’s most entrancing images, her face floats disembodied in blackness, like the moon alone in the night sky, seeming to shine with its own light. This isolation accentuates not only her faultless bone structure but the current of communication between her and the camera. She is never merely a beautiful object—except in portraits by George Hurrell, who ruefully recalled his failure with Garbo. In his only sitting with her (for the period drama Romance in 1930), she was put off by his approach, a manic, noisy show of activity that he used to distract and relax his subjects. She “clammed up,” he recalled, and in the resulting pictures she looks blank, almost drugged, glossily gorgeous but uninvolved.

Five years after she left the screen, Garbo was photographed by Cecil Beaton in his Plaza Hotel suite. These images—made by a bisexual photographer who fell in love with the elusive, bisexual actress—capture better than any others the paradox of her need to both hide and display herself, to seduce and to withdraw, which is perhaps the source of her mystery. Before his lens she alternately blossoms in the warmth of her own desirability and retreats behind the strict lines of her profile, a haunting spectacle of unbroachable solitude. Her portraits seem truer than her movies because she is alone in them.

The paradox of Garbo’s career is that her movies were always romances, whose love scenes function like the dances in Astaire-Rogers movies, both justifying and rising above contrived and tedious plots—yet she never found an actor with whom she achieved the sublime rapport Astaire found with Rogers. Her greatest chemistry, her most intimate communion, was always with the camera. (Perhaps this explains her particularly close, nearly exclusive relationships with cameramen—Bull for her stills, and cinematographer William Daniels, who lit and lensed most of her Hollywood films.) Her tendency to make her leading men look ridiculous—they spend a lot of time drawing themselves up rigid and staring bug-eyed at her—inevitably diminishes love stories. That these men are out of their depth is almost the point. Screenwriters devised various ostensibly tragic reasons for her characters not to wind up with their love interests, disguising the truth that the real subject of Garbo’s films is not love, in any sense that ordinary mortals experience it, but a kind of rapture—half sexual, half spiritual—that Garbo alone achieves. She is so magnificently alien, so out of all proportion with her foolish and hackneyed surroundings, that she wears from the outset a fundamental singleness. It seems no accident that three of her best films, Queen Christina, Camille, and Ninotchka, are all named for her characters. In Cukor’s Camille (1936), Robert Taylor functions as an object and focus of her liquid, dazzling, mercurial performance. His height gives her an excuse to let her head fall back, revealing the ravishing line of her snow-white throat, a gesture of abandon—to laughter, to love, to despair.

In movies, she moves—in Queen Christina, one thinks of her striding around in trousers, shoulders pitched forward, or “memorizing” the room she has shared with a lover in a snowbound inn, with a curious mixture of awkwardness and animal grace. But she could also bring time to a halt as she does in that film’s legendary final shot, which banked on her power to hold attention as she stood unmoving and expressionless for more than half a minute. In the midst of a moving picture, she evoked the stillness of the frames running through the projector. She embodies cinema’s essential nature: stillness in motion. If photographs, from their invention, aspired to be moving pictures, there is a sense in which movies, at least in the Hollywood studio era, aspired to the condition of stills: that perfection, that apotheosis, which can only be sustained for a single frame.


The Camera’s Love: Joan Crawford

While Garbo’s identity was so set in the public mind that each change was trumpeted as a major event (Garbo talks! Garbo laughs! Garbo quits movies after being forced to do the rhumba!), Joan Crawford reinvented herself for every decade. She was a fun-loving flapper doing the Charleston on a table-top; she was a working girl struggling to survive the Depression with some shreds of dignity intact; she was a glamorously suffering clotheshorse; she was an aging career woman navigating an increasingly noir landscape of betrayal and violence; she was an icon of camp horror, a hard woman on the knife-edge of hysteria, with big shoulders, a tensely set jaw, and caterpillar eyebrows. The constant in her long career was an implacable drive to succeed, a blend of fiendish energy and quivering need that kept burning beneath her changing exterior.

When she first arrived at MGM in the late 1920s, she was photographed by Ruth Harriet Louise in a dizzying array of personas, almost as though she were auditioning to be a female Lon Chaney—the woman of a thousand faces. “One of the most interesting things about this work,” Louise said of her studio portraiture, “is watching a personality develop.” That she uses a photographic term for this process (develop) cannot be coincidence.

“There is a brittleness and instability about Crawford’s screen presence, as she alternately challenges and supplicates the camera, and through it the audience.”

In these early images Crawford hasn’t settled on an identity, and she’s so young there’s still baby fat in her cheeks. In some pictures, with her fresh face and short bob and sporty clothes, she is the twenties’ ideal of the boyish woman. Modeling fur coats, she is a shop girl on the make, eyes uplifted in hungry aspiration. In a long black wig, with a handkerchief to her mouth, she tries out the tearful appeal of a wronged maiden. Swathed in a bizarre gold-lamé cowl, with her lips lacquered and her huge, luminous eyes fixed on the camera, she’s an exotic temptress. She would try anything. She would cavort as a leggy Santa’s elf or a garlanded bacchante, grip a knife in her teeth as a lady pirate with terrifyingly wide, blazing eyes. There’s something a little sad in her determination: “What do you want me to be? I’ll be it!” She is pretty and unformed and frantic to get ahead. She even transformed herself into Hamlet, in an extraordinary picture that goes far beyond spoof. In a costume and posture evoking John Barrymore’s brooding turn as the melancholy Dane, she is gorgeous and glowering and—if you look too long at her fierce, dark-rimmed eyes—rather alarming. There’s no Hamlet-like doubt or introspection in them, only unblinking determination.

It was with George Hurrell that Crawford would define her archetypal look. He lit her so that her face looks like polished bone; he posed her up against walls, proudly flaunting her lithe figure in clinging, geometric black and white gowns. She throws her head back and looks down her nose through eyelashes caked with mascara. Her mouth is a black smear. “This is who I am—take it and like it!” she seems to snarl defiantly. She looks stripped down to her essence here, at once giving herself to the camera with abandon and controlling her image with total confidence. Yet there was something in those earlier hard-working, desperate-to-please starlet shots that defined her as an actress. She could play tough, she could play haughty, but underneath there was always a dogged, unappeasable need for acceptance, for love. There is a brittleness and instability about her screen presence, as she alternately challenges and supplicates the camera, and through it the audience. Even in her later roles, when her looks have become harsh, her face can open up in a soft, glowing plea, so naked it makes you squirm. Yet she is always squaring her shoulders to face the world, raising her chin and her wounded eyes and daring it to hurt her again.

Hurrell was the first photographer to reveal the way Crawford’s beauty was made more exciting by how close it comes to ugliness—a visual ambiguity made explicit in Cukor’s A Woman’s Face (1941), where her character is disfigured. A childhood fire has left her with a gnarled scar on one side of her face, like a black diseased root growing across her cheek and distorting her eye and mouth; from the other side, she looks perfectly normal. Half lovely and half grotesque, half tough and half vulnerable, Anna Holm spells out what was usually inchoate in Crawford’s paradoxical presence. In one of her greatest performances, she makes us feel Anna’s agonizing humiliation when people look at her. Then she meets one man (Conrad Veidt) who appreciates her, not just despite but because of her deformity, and who admires the bitter pride with which she confronts her miserable lot. When they first meet and Anna turns her head defiantly to reveal her scar, he gazes at her with a gleam of excitement, even of perverse attraction. She is confused and touched by his kindness and gallantry, helplessly trying to hide her sensitivity beneath a hard-boiled façade. Her broken-up, uncertain expressions and her unguarded, trembling desire when he gives her flowers or kisses her hand count as some of the most delicate, honest acting Crawford ever did. 

Later, when plastic surgery has magically eliminated the scar and she prepares to surprise Veidt with her new face, she gazes at herself in a mirror, brimming with hard, proud joy. She is so good in this role because it probes the split in her screen presence, between a brazen assertiveness and a yearning to be liked. She does not so much seduce the camera as she is seduced by it, by its promise—like the promise the surgeon makes to Anna—of metamorphosis. Cukor described how “the nearer the camera, the most tender and yielding she became, her eyes glistening, her lips avid in ecstatic acceptance.” He surmised that the camera, more than any man in her life, was her true lover.

People who are not photogenic know the pain of feeling at once exposed and denied, convinced that pictures don’t show their real selves, and worried that they tell the cold truth. Those who are most photogenic, like Crawford or Garbo, find in the camera’s eye what everyone wants: to be seen as we are in our fantasies, and to have it set down forever, in black and white, that that is who we really were.