Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Golden Age of Hollywood Portraiture

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford Posted by Hello

On a recent trip to Austin, I stopped by the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus to see the exhibit SHOOTING STARS: THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD PORTRAITURE, 1925-1950. It was a small jewel of an exhibit, featuring 80 black & white photographs of such legendary stars as Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, Rudolph Valentino, and Cary Grant, among others.

In the exhibition overview, the curator notes, “Studios discovered the importance of amplifying a performer’s presence, popularity and money-earning potential by making them ‘stars’. The photograph was one of the main elements used in the image-generating process.” In the earliest days of Hollywood, stars such as Mary Pickford would use their own money and hire independent photographers to create images to distribute to fans and the media. As studios gained more power, they sought more control over the images of their stars. To this end, the studios hired their own, in-house photographers. These photographers, through the use of lighting, props, backgrounds, fashions—and yes, retouching—created “lush images of glamour”, iconic imagery of “the Hollywood star”. These manufactured images had a profound effect on the cult of celebrity, and many photographic motifs created by these studio workers are still employed today in the realms of celebrity and fashion photography. While many of the studio photographers toiled in anonymity, some did achieve acclaim for their work, such as George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull, both represented in the exhibition.

One of the interesting bits of information I learned from this exhibit pertains to the role of the HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION CODE in the creation of the images. The Code, a censorial set of rules governing motion pictures (discussed at length in an earlier entry) also applied to still images and advertising. The most worrisome for movie censors was the “2-shot” photo. Since many of the films had a romantic plots, studios would often request images of both the leading man and lady together—or the “2-shot”. The Code spelled it out clearly: Salacious poses are not allowed. Photographers had to take into consideration how a man held a woman, making sure there was no appearance of impropriety. No cleavage or navels could be shown, and “excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces or suggestive postures and gestures” were strictly verboten. The image above of stars Clark Gable and Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, for the 1936 film LOVE ON THE RUN, was considered a safe image to release to the media.

To see more classic examples of celebrity portraiture from George Hurrell and his contemporaries, check out the site


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