Essays (book reviews)
Masters of Starlight: Photographers in Hollywood
Every light has a point where it is brightest and a point toward which it wanders to lose itself completely. It must be intercepted to fulfill its mission, it cannot function in a void. Light can go straight, penetrate and turn back, be reflected and deflected, gathered and spread, bent as a soap bubble, made to sparkle and be blocked. Where it begins is the core of its brightness. The journey of rays from that central core to the outposts of blackness is the adventure of drama and light.
– Josef von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry
A title like Masters of Starlight might conjure a book solely devoted to what we have come to think of as Hollywood glamour photography: the luminous faces of the great stars, swathed in ethereal, lyrical abstraction. This book certainly contains some of the finest examples of the glamour genre, but its brief is in fact much wider: photographers in Hollywood, as the subtitle puts it. This means that, although the book’s central emphasis is on portraiture and its stylistic evolution, there are two other vast, and vastly significant, areas into which the editors stray: the film still, and photojournalism.
Masters of Starlight is, in many respects, one of the finest books of its kind. Photographic specialists and connoisseurs will certainly not be disappointed by it. The images used in the book derive from an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the result of work undertaken over a six-year period by the Hollywood Photographers Archives. Editors David Fahey and Linda Rich, both among the founders of the Archives, ensure not only a decent representative spread of Hollywood photographers (a truly rare thing in books of this kind); they also uphold the highest standards of photographic reproduction, using only original prints made from the original negative or transparency shot by the photographer.
Although film writer Mitch Tuchman is thanked for providing “critical direction” to the project, the introductory essay by the editors contains very little that resembles film (or photography) criticism. Beyond a very useful outline of the history of the area, Fahey and Rich, as spokespersons for the Archives, are mainly concerned to claim Hollywood photography as ‘art photography’. This they do with no small amount of earnestness and zealotry. For instance, they rewrite the doctrine of auteurism for their own ends by claiming, territorially, that only their chosen heroes truly deserve to be thought of as auteurs or artists within the studio system:
In the aura of their golden years the still photographers of Hollywood assume a role somehow more exalted than their colleagues in the movie-making business because their accomplishments are more clearly the product of their own abilities, less evidently the result of collaboration. (p.28)
Thus is art and artistry defined in the witheringly old-fashioned terms of individualist vision; accordingly, the personal anecdotes, reminiscences and revelations of photographers involved seem to count more than any other possible critical consideration. In general, the text, in its glosses on the photographers and images included, rarely rises above the somewhat hype-ridden clichés of an ancient form of fine art-speak. Of the work of Ruth Harriet Louise, for instance, we read: “Although her subjects seldom looked directly into the camera, they seemed to project themselves into it nonetheless.” Photographers tend to be especially praised when their style corresponds to honoured movements in painting or design, particularly of the Modernist variety: Will Connell is described as creating “precise, hard-edged images with sharp, constructive design”; Bert Longworth is credited with exploring a photo-montage style.
What quickly disappears from this book, as a result of such a desire to round up some select photographs for the corral of fine art, is any sense of Hollywood photography as an often exhilaratingly anonymous, convention-bound, hokey, corny, clichéd form – in short, as popular culture, Not primarily a form of self expression for artists (although I do not doubt it functioned as such for some photographers at an explicit or subterranean level); but a channel, like everything else in mass entertainment, for cultural expression. Thus, you will read nothing in Masters of Starlight, as you might in more truly critical books like Alfred Appel’s Signs of Life (New York: Knopf, 1983), about the different codings of gender in these photographs (and the often wild variations on the given codes); nothing about Hollywood’s racial or class stereotypes, and how they are performed via modelling gesture and visual composition; nothing to do with any of the issues and speculations concerning image, narrative, spectacle and much else that arise irresistibly from these wonderfully glossy pages. At its limit, this kind of old-fashioned artspeak can only gesture, with a feeble sociological air, towards the ‘spirit’ or the ‘obsessions’ of those times long gone, captured so truthfully and artfully by the great photographers.
However, one does not really need this text as a guide through the images themselves; it is in these images that the fascination of the book truly resides. As well as giving us the greats – George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Edward Steichen, et al – Masters of Starlight covers others, further back, like Arthur Rice and Witzel, who receive only the slightly creepy bio-line “birthplace and life dates unknown”! In keeping with many art-angled histories of the area, the story seems to end in the early 1970s – here represented by Douglas Kirkland’s colour portraits of Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. Fahey and Rich, to their credit, are not as fanatically purist as some others in delimiting their subject (the famed photo-anthologist John Kobal, for example, tends to pour scorn over almost every strain and tendency in Hollywood photography beyond the 1940s). Nonetheless, in their search for photographic Art – particularly via star portraiture – they pull up shy of a few extremely interesting areas.
I mentioned at the start of this review three large categories of Hollywood photography: glamour, the film still, and photojournalism. Masters of Starlight, as can be expected, has no problems accommodating the first category. The genre of glamour portraiture was, after all, a perfectly, elegantly formalist paradigm. The technical elaboration of light as the essential basis, the life and heart of any photographic image, still or moving – the subject that so obsessed Josef von Sternberg in cinematography – marries exactly with Hollywood’s transcendental mythology of the star as he or she who attracts light and adoration, who shines and illuminates the darkness. Such a poetic vision – displayed so well in this volume by Arthur F. Kales’ portrait of Thomas Meighan, or Eugene Robert Richee’s photo of Tallulah Bankhead – governed not only Hollywood still photography of the 1920s and ‘30s, but also the more romantic and melancholic modes of cinema during the same period: Frank Borzage, Sternberg, Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935).
The book is rather wary of claiming the film still genre as art in quite the same fashion. This is perhaps because what is known in the industry as production stills – various restagings or distillations of scenes from a film in production – are more nakedly promotional in nature, and more frankly parasitic on the moving picture, than glamour portraits. They are often also, as is their nature, a lot crazier and more vulgarly spectacular – more like popular movie culture – than glamour shots. A whole generation of today’s postmodern artists, from Cindy Sherman in America to Robyn Stacey in Australia, has rediscovered, and taken off from, the nameless fictional intrigues and composite stylistic strategies inherent in literally thousands of these film stills. Fahey and Rich touch on this vast area in their selection of wonderful images relating to Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946), Broderick Crawford in Down Three Dark Streets (1954) and Robert Montgomery in The Earl of Chicago (1940). Yet, even here they clearly favour photographic artists (Robert Coburn in the first two instances, Laszlo Willinger in the third) who abstract and purify their material – who make it less like Hollywood and more like art.
Photojournalism – of the sort pioneered and virtually trademarked by Life magazine in its heyday – also sits a little uneasily within the terms of this collection. This genre ushered into the domain of Hollywood photography a whole new pictorial texture – contrivedly messy at times, weirdly angular and distorted, full of strange compositional vectors, harping on notes of disconnectedness and alienation. Many of the fine reportage photographs in this book – such as those by Phil Stern and John Swope – capture these qualities in a striking fashion. Fahey and Rich tend to thematise such images in the predictable ways – as revealing the truth of actors in their unguarded moments away from the camera, or of the filmmaking process itself, behind the scenes in old Tinseltown. Perhaps attempting to forge a continuous tradition from glamour photography to photojournalism, the book tends to favour the portraiture of this period – with certainly an inordinate number of shots of Marilyn Monroe, by many different hands. (Some mythologies indeed die hard.)
Yet photojournalism, I would argue, looks away from both the Hollywood cinema of its time, and the structures of ‘Hollywood photography’ as delineated by this book. The subject matter of these images is no longer Hollywood (its stars or its world) because, at their strangest, they quietly detonate the whole idea of a subject at their centre of focus. Many of these images, pole-vaulting as they do into the heart of the irreality at the tangled phenomenal surface of events, are completely decentred, not only pictorially but spiritually, in their mood and tone. They hurl the viewer around, from one border of the frame to the next: just what is it that you are meant to be seeing here?
Of course, in exploring such terrain, Life-style photojournalism prefigured new, post-classical forms of cinema, which work through the distended, lazily exploded narratives of the road movie, and the pictorial textures of odd actuality: the films of (among others) Monte Hellman, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Robert Frank (who moved from still photography to cinema, for instance in Candy Mountain  with Tom Waits and Bulle Ogier, scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer), and Dennis Hopper (see his photographic collection Out of the Sixties).
Moreover, photojournalism’s arrival announced the historical moment at which starlight could no longer function as the centrifugal seductive force holding together an art, a culture, or an industrial Dream Factory like Hollywood. Perhaps the so-called golden years preceding that break-up were only short-lived, almost illusory, anyway. Our nostalgia for that time is rendered rich indeed by a book as sumptuous as Masters of Starlight.
© Adrian Martin July 1989