Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits
7 July – 23 October 2011
When we think of classic Hollywood glamour, we think of names such as Marlene Dietrich, James Dean, Joan Collins, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
These are the stars of the golden age of Hollywood cinema " and the focus of a special exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.The Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits examines the role of photography in creating stars in Hollywood from 1920 to 1960. The show brings together key works by nearly 40 photographers including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Laszlo Willinger, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise.At the time, still photographs from films, used as lobby cards and posters, had an important role in drawing in the crowds to the latest release. In just one shot they had to encapsulate the film plot and demonstrate the allure of the leading man or lady.Before the days of the paparazzi, photographers had a major role to play in setting up the public image of movie actors. During this period Hollywood studios strictly controlled how their leading actors and actresses were portrayed. Portrait photographs were carefully stage-managed to project an aura of glamour and inaccessibility. Thousands were produced and distributed worldwide " and to enable wide and rapid reproduction they were stamped 'copyright free'. This meant that some of the most important photographers went unrecognised despite their pivotal role in the studio system.Sometimes, relationships were struck up between photographers and their models " as was the case with Greta Garbo and Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Joan Crawford and George Hurrell.Nearly all of the photographs in this show are vintage prints drawn from the archive of the John Kobal Foundation.
One of Marlon Brando's most celebrated performances was in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire. Look out for a still shot, taken in 1950 by LA-based photographer John Engstead, which demonstrates the actor's brooding screen presence.The fresh-faced beauty of a young Elizabeth Taylor is captured in Clarence Sinclair Bull's 1948 colour photograph. In the picture Taylor tilts her head to one side, accentuating the striking curved line of her eyebrows which is echoed in the neckline of her dress.In George Hurrell's portrait of Jean Harlow, the actress' face is lit to such perfection that it seems to glow. Her face is framed by a halo of white-gold curls, the white theme continued in the silky material of her dress and background. Photographs like this helped project an image of stars as other-worldly creatures, almost god-like in their perfection.