The current National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Glamour of The Gods, sets out to ‘demonstrate photography’s decisive role in creating and marketing the stars central to the Hollywood mystique.’
The Tramp thinks the execution falls far short of the goal.
In my mind, Hollywood’s Golden Age runs anywhere between 1915 and 1950. I’ve had pictures of film stills and film stars from this era on my walls since I was old enough to dictate what pictures I could have on my walls. They are almost fairytale images: glimpses of impossibly glamorous women in the most beautiful clothes. So it was nice to see one of my favourite images from childhood here: Louise Brooks, her jet-black hair in its iconic fringed bob, her lithe dancer’s body clad all in black, her porcelain white face and hands and a long string of pearls all you can see – this is glamour and art. I didn’t want to be a princess when I was little, but I did want to be Louise Brooks.
I know I’m not alone here, partly because early Hollywood understood marketing better than anyone has ever done. It created dreams that audiences could escape into and want to live out themselves. Case in point: Clara Bow, included in this exhibition in a strong full-body portrait photograph. Clara was Hollywood’s first reality personality, plucked from a nationwide beauty contest and put in front of a camera specifically to become a star. Her career-making 1927 vehicle It even played on her origins as the star from nowhere: she plays a shopgirl dreaming of a better life in the arms of the rich, handsome department store owner. The message to the audience was: ‘If Clara can do it, why can’t I?’ The film’s success saw Bow crowned The It Girl – the embodiment of modern glamour.
Even if that glamour remained a dream for most people in the audience, there was always a piece of it you could buy. Take for instance the craze for plucked, pencilled-in eyebrows, surely the maddest of female beauty crazes. A trend that started with Garbo – but only because the film goddess’s naturally blonde high-arched eyebrows didn’t register on camera. A million similar small and affordable touches of glamour were popularised by films; from manicured nails, to lipstick, to smoking. The obsession with how stars look and what they wear is no new phenomenon, even if it sometimes feels like one.
Still, this was the Golden Age, and to my mind the fashion, styling and creativity of early cinema has never been beaten. Once the talkies got over their initial creative hiccups, film dialogue has never had the same zip and zing. The costumers of Hollywood led fashion by dressing the stars; Coco may have created the little black dress and created a lasting fashion legacy but most of the world was ogling the clothes they saw on the silver screen and looking to emulate those gowns, not Coco’s – as dress patterns and department store ads of the period attest. The photographers who shot the studio stills, star portrait publicity shots and magazine covers were vital and unseen pioneers. They created and protected the visual identity of stars, reinforcing their impossible perfections, using their imperfections to help forge distinct visual identities, or indeed hiding them to protect the idea of stars as impossibly glamorous gods and goddesses.
These photographers pioneered lighting techniques, make-up, photographic lenses and a visual language of glamour and desire that we still understand today. Women as well as men, they had fascinating lives and careers and came from a diverse range of backgrounds. Think of Adolphe de Meyer, a German-Jewish aristocrat who photographed for Vogue and had a lavender marriage with Edward VII’s god-daughter. Or George Hurrell Jr, whose career began at MGM in the 1920s and ended with portraits of Sharon Stone, Sherilyn Fenn and Sean Penn in the 1990s.
While the stars, studios, directors, and films of the Golden Age have all received their share of attention, the photographer’s story is the one rarely told. So the National Portrait Gallery’s Glamour of the Gods exhibition promised to take us behind the lens.
Sadly it disappointed. The exhibition is a lovely collection of film stills and publicity portraits with the occasional rare gem of an image – such as the portrait of Buster Keaton in clown’s make up, or a close-up of James Cagney, all wrinkles and shadows, light and dark. The emphasis however is on the stars in the pictures, their lives, their body of work and not the photographers who took the pictures. Each image has accompanying text, two-thirds of which is given over to the star, with only the final third mentioning the photographer. Detail is perfunctory, with little on their lives, their techniques, or their importance in establishing and furthering an art form.
There is also very little detail on how the photographers actually created these images, or the extent to which they collaborated with the stars. There is even less on how much these images were retouched, or how lighting was used, or the importance that these images assumed in creating the stars’ personas. (Dietrich, for example, would mark-up her own negatives for the photographer to retouch; trusting her image to no-one’s hands but her own.) The creation of the stars was a journey, but the impression given here is that it took no more effort than the pop of the flashbulb. And so we’re left thinking that the stars were always stars, sprung from obscurity to godlike status thanks merely to a role in a film, a couple of publicity shots and a marketing department busy sending pictures of them out to fans.
The selection of photographs in the exhibition is drawn from the collection of John Kobal, a sometime actor and inveterate collector, whose friendship with Dietrich led to him amassing some 4,500 star portraits from Hollywood’s Golden Age. If you know little about this era, and have no idea who Louise Brooks, Clara Bow or Lillian Gish are, you might well find this exhibition fascinating. It does introduce you to some long-gone stars, some of whose reputations have long since faded. Even in those cases, it’s hard not to get caught up by the images: the draw of the glamour still enthralling. If however, you do know something of this period of film, or indeed if you are a photography fan, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Glamour of the Gods continues at the National Portrait Gallery until 23 October 2011.