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Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery

Marlon Brando, 1950 by John Engstead

Jack Newhouse – July 2011

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits” poses an intriguing excursus on picturing famous people and photography.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition covers a period of forty years of the Hollywood story and it displays portraits of many famous actors and actresses such as Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young and Joan Collins never previously exhibited in the UK. It is the first museum exhibition of vintage prints from the John Kobal Foundation and a rare opportunity to view important artworks of a now extinct Hollywood studio system.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits” analyses the impact of the photography in generating notoriety of the Hollywood stardom system from 1920s to 1960s. Therefore, it looks at the photographers work and how they could turn actors and actresses into international mass media phenomenon icons.

This new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery displays photographs which are vintage prints drawn from the John Kobal Foundation archive. Portraits are of Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth by nearly forty photographers including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Laszlo Willinger, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits” shows both iconic and previously unseen portraits and various of these are shown alongside film scene. Some of the images are very famous and they have been used so many times. It is easy to recognise them immediately, for example, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for ‘Swing Time’, James Dean for ‘Rebel without a Cause’ and Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan for ‘The Kid’. There are also a Marilyn Monroe nude, Laurel and Hardy and Louise Brooks. Stills photographs were used for lobby cards and posters and had to summarise the film and attract film-goers in just one image.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1948 by Clarence Sinclair Bull

The Hollywood Studios, still today, heavily control the image of the stars. Photographers showed in “Glamour of the Gods” were the leading ones at that time. Davis Boulton was one of the few British photographers working for the Hollywood Studios. 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 unaccredited 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 that little cared for the history of the film industry. At first his interest was solely in the stars and their films but his attention began to shift to the photographers behind the portraits, many of whom were still alive and accessible at that 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.

The John Kobal Foundation was formed before his death in 1991. He donated to it the negatives and photographs that he had collected over the years. Exploitation of these provides a source of income used to help advance appreciation and awareness of photography, particularly portraiture. The foundation first pursued this aim through the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award in association with the National Portrait Gallery from 1992-2002. The foundation continues to encourage the work of emerging photographers primarily through the grant of discretionary awards. In recent years, the John Kobal New Work Award has given grants to Whitechapel Gallery in London, the National Media Museum’s Bursary Awards and the charity, Photovoice, as well as to individual photographers.

The exhibition is organised by the Santa Barbara Museum of Arts and supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The exhibition will run from 7th July until 23rd October 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.


Written by davidfranchi

January 4, 2012 at 11:56 pm

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