As Hollywood films replaced the live theater scene in the 1920s, producers responded to the public’s interest in the leading actors by photographing the rising stars.
Film historian and collector John Kobal was “one of the first people to turn the attention from the star of the photo to the person who created it,” said Simon Crocker, chairman of the John Kobal Foundation.
Initially, fine-art photographers made portraits of the main players, which often had a similar feel to photographs of Broadway actors. But in the mid-1920s, studios hired in-house photographers to help advertise upcoming films and stars.
“It was a pretty sophisticated set up,” including a marketing system to send the photos out to be seen by the public, Crocker said.
What began as promotional material for movies at the beginning of the century transformed into a historical lens looking at the early era of cinema. Kobal was one of the first to publicly identify what were essentially press release photos for the art that it truly was.
The idea was so foreign that when Kobal began gathering images, the photographers thought he was wasting his time. But Kobal saw them as more than craftsmen; they were artists. Their final product has an “enduring quality,” Crocker said.
At an exhibition in the 1970s at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, art critics reviewed the Hollywood images for the first time as art, taken by individual photographers shooting with individual styles, instead of as memorabilia.
While the 1930s established a glamorous Hollywood, many of the early images were not intimate or sexy depictions of actors, Crocker said.
The original intent of these photos wasn’t to create a “star scene,” he explained, but to show viewers what films were being made. “It took time to develop a photo language.”
But it worked in those days. The studio had a product – the actor – that they carefully developed and honed in. Now, a celebrity’s face is his brand, and he has to be careful with it.
Images from the Golden Age of Hollywood, from 1920 through 1960, have recently been released as an iPad book, “Glamour of the Gods.” The photographs are also being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria, Australia.
- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN
Images courtesy MAPP and the John Kobal Foundation.