Saturday, February 26, 2011

The First Great Hollywood Woman Photographer: Ruth Harriet Louise

Born Ruth Goldstein on January 13, 1903 in New York City.  She was raised in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her father was a rabbi.  In the summer of 1925, at the young age of 22 years old, she was hired by Metro Goldwyn Mayer as chief portrait photographer--the only woman doing so for the Hollywood studios at the time. 

From 1925 to 1930, she many hopefuls, starlets and major performers including Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Lili Damita, Buster Keaton, Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Bessie Love, Lillian Gish, and Anna Sten.

About Bull's relationship with Louise from 'Glamour of the Gods' book:

After Clarence Sinclair Bull was doing the most time-consuming gallery sessions, Ruth Harriet Louise was hired in 1925 as MGM's portrait photographer. This was not a demotion for Bull, as Louise reported directly to Pete Smith, the head of publicity, and Bull's dutied remained unchanged. Still, Louise and Bull seem not to have got along, and he never mentioned her in interviews or his writings after she left MGM in 1929. Louise's work, however, did influence Bull, who started to emulate her soft-focus pictorialism in 1927. Perhaps challenged by Louise's talent and craft, by the end of the 1920s Bull had matured as a photographer. Though sometimes outshone by Louise in the late 1920s, and later by his colleague Hurrell in the early 1930s, at his best Bull was equal to both. Bud Graybill, who shot stills under Bull's supervision for over twenty years starting in the mid-1930s, described him in a letter to Kobal (dated 29 January 1978) as 'the quintessence of photographers. His negatives were near perfect in exposure... the imaginative work he did over a period of roughly 40 years was never topped.' After Louise left MGM at the end of 1929, Bull distinguished himself as Garbo's principal photogragher, which must have made him the envy of his peers regardless of studio.

She decided to retire from her career in 1930 to marry director Leigh Jason.  Sadly, after ten years of martial bliss, she died on October 12, 1940 from complications from childbirth in Los Angeles, California. 

From the book 'Glamour of the Gods', it further adds to Louise's biography:

Louise's brief reign as portrait studio chief lasted from mid-1925 to the end of 1929. To Louise goes the credit of being the photographer who fashioned Garbo's face into the timeless visage still immediately recognisable worldwide. Just twenty-two when she joined MGM in summer of 1925, Louise lost her job to George Hurrell four years later. Throughout the 1930s she occasionally took private comissions photographing stars such as Anna Stern (in 1932) and Myrna Loy (in 1935).

Louise died in childbirth in 1940, utterly forgotten by an industry she had worked assiduously to document. John Kobal avidly collected her original prints and acquired hundreds of her negatives. Of all the photographer's he introduced in his book in "The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers," Louise's career was most in need of rehabilitation. Even her gender, which set her apart from all her contemporaries, had been insufficient reason to keep her memory alive.

Louise was among the first Hollywood photographers to break away from the old-fashioned convention of staid portrait shots and introduce the nuance of her sitter's perosnality. When she photographed stars in costume she attempted to find something of the character being portrayed. Kobal noted that she was 'in the vanguard of the phtographers who would revolutionize Hollywood portrait phtography.' Hollywood portraiture before Louise documented strong personas: Swanson's glamour, Chaplin's tramp, Pickford's waif. Louise took the screen personas of her favoirtie siters, such as Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford, and in her photograghs humanized them while never letting their star lustre diminsh. 'There is about Louise's work,' wrote Kobal in 1980, 'delicacy, a shy, appealing privacy, that established an immediate bond with the viewer," Her sujects liked her and trusted her, including the elusive Garbo. The two young women worked together, starting with Garbo's first portrait session in Hollywood, two months before she appeared on the set, through her ascent as MGM's greatest female draw. Louise's sensitive touch, along with the work of MGM's brilliant cinematograhers combined to create the face that enthralled moviegoers.

There has been discussion in Hollywood literature as to how much Louise relied on full-length shots, which she would then crop to make half-length or close-ups portraits. Kobal may have started this notion when he wrote about Louise. Although cropping was and remains a useful tool in most photographers' practice, in fact Louise took as many close-ups and (especially) medium shots as any of her contemporaries. Kobal identified correctly that many of Louise's famous compositions were derived from cropped negatives that found their final form in the darkroom. But Louise's surving negatives (numbering in the thousands)demonstrate without question that Louise shot regularly in close-up and medium shots and these also formed the basis for many of her most important photographs.

A couple of her relatives were also notables in Hollywood: her brother was director Mike Sandrich (he directed many Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicials) and her cousin was silent film actress, Carmel Myers.

She took over 100,000 photographs during her stint at MGM and now she is considered on equal turf with other great photographers such as George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull among others.  This also makes her original vintage photographs worth a pretty penny at auction as well.

I highly recommend the book, Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography by Robertson and Dance (2002).  Here is a link for the book:

The photos below show why she is on par with Hurrell and other greats:

Anna Sten

She took many spectacular photos of Joan Crawford...

... And of Greta Garbo

Norma Shearer

Dorothy Sebastian

Mary Nolan and Joan Crawford

Mae Murray

Buster Keaton

Marion Davies

Lili Damita

Profile shot of Lillian Gish.

Anita Page

Bessie Love

An example of her embossed stamp.

An example of her ink stamp which is also sometimes in a dark red color.

This is what the great lady Ruth looked like herself, just like one of the many stars she photographed.

Ruth and one of her greatest subjects, Crawford below:

The Supreme Hollywood Photography of Elmer Fryer

Elmer Fryer is another Hollywood great who cannot be missed when mentioning the glamour photography of yesteryear.

Fryer was born January 21, 1898 in Springfield, Missouri.  He began working as a photographer in 1924.  When Warner Brothers and First National Studios joined operations in 1929, Fryer replaced Fred Archer as head of the new Warner-First National Stills Department.  During the 1930s he took portraits of Dolores Del Rio, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, George Brent among other Warner Brothers stars.  Fryer left Warner Brothers in 1941, shortly before his death at age 46 on March 3, 1944.

Fryer is known for his detailed and complex eye for posing his subjects.  He had a wonderful sense of modernist style and fashion.  He made use of the art deco period's elegant shading and shadowing in black and white photography.

Joan Blondell

Alice White

Polly Walters

Bette Davis

Thelma Todd

Lili Damita

Myrna Loy

Marion Davies

Louise Brooks

Loretta Young

Mary Astor

Dolores Del Rio

Constance Bennett

Bebe Daniels

Here is one of Marion Davies that shows many details of the art deco period.

Olivia De Havilland

Here are some photographs of Fryer with his subjects:

With Bette Davis, who he photographed often.

With Jane Wyman

Here is an example of Fryer's embossed stamp:

This is the back of the photo of Davis and Fryer together listed and shown above.

An official back ink stamp.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Flair for Portraits: Eugene Robert Richee

Eugene (sometimes also just called Gene) Robert Richee was born August 21, 1896 in Denver, Colorado.  Richee began his career in the silent movie era. He got his job at Paramount in the late teens through his friend Clarence Sinclair Bull.  He started shooting stars while Donald Biddle Keyes was taking portraits in the gallery.  When Keyes left Paramount, Richee took over, and for two decades he photographed the studio's stars including Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Claudette Colbert, Fredrick March, the Marx Brothers and Carole Lombard.  Lombard so admired his work with Dietrich that she started posing in some of the same ways to get that 'glamour mysterious' look.

Richee was the perfect technician for Joseph Von Sternberg, who controlled Dietrich's career.  All sittings were supervised by von Sternberg for the lighting setups, and directed the action just as he did on the studio floor.  When Dietrich's collaboration with Von Sternberg ended, Richee continued to take her portraits, which retained the look of the von Sternberg originals.  It could be said that Richee learned plenty from the great director that he used for many of his own stills.

He took portrait photographs of stars on the sets of some of Paramount Pictures most well known classics.  As his talent became more and more prevalent, he was put in charge of the main portrait gallery at Paramount.  He worked with a talented coterie of associates including William Walling and Don English.  Richee remains the least examined among the top Hollwood phtographers although he was one of the finest--one needs to look no further than his sensational portraits of Paramount stars like Anna Mae Wong, Clara Bow, and Marlene Dietrich among others.

From 1925 to 1935 took many photographs of Louise Brooks.  Perhaps Richee's most famous work is a 1928 portrait of Louise Brooks wearing a long string of pearls. Few photos capture better the zeitgeist of the Roaring '20s. Simplicity is the hallmark of this photograph, along with masterful composition. Brooks stands, face in profile and wearing a long-sleeved black dress, against a black background, her face hands and pearls along illuminated. Her bob, with its razor-sharp line across the white skin of her jaw, was widely copied and became one of the last century's most potent fashion statements. Brook's career had intermittent highs and lows, but she was one of Hollywood's great portrait subjects and was never better served than by Richee.

Even a tireless researcher like Kobal had difficulty uncovering biographical informatioin about Richee, and it is only after Kobal's death that a few details have emerged about Richee's life including his 1896 birth in Colorado.  He started at Paramount in 1921 and stayed there twenty years, after which he took a job at Warner Brothers.  Richee died in 1972, just before Kobal began exploring seriously the careers of Hollywood portrait photographers.  Like Ruth Harriet Louise, Richee left scant biographical information behind but, again like Louise, he left a corpus of extaordinary work that may be seen as emblematic of the best of Hollywood photography.

Richee was an inventive photographer and when working with starlets he sometime incoporated props made of plastic, glass or even mirrors, giving his prints a sparkling reflective quality. Portraits of the top stars always had a sheen that was consistent with the studio's image of smart sophistication.  When he photographed Clara Bow, the studio's number one sexpot took on a polished veneer.  Rchee has the distinction of being the first photographer to record Veronica Lake and her distinctive blonde locks in his portraits for 'I Wanated Wings' (1940), the film that brought her worldwide fame.

Gary Cooper had made more than thirty films over five years when he was cast in 1930 as Dietrich's first Paramount co-star in 'Morocco' (1930). He was the first male Hollywood star to bridge the opossing forces of masculinity and beauty.  Plenty of handsomme men had great careers before Cooper, but none so perfectly fused with what had always been considered opposites.  Richee photographed him extensively, beginning when he was a tocuh too beautiful for a young man, and followed his transformation to the exemplar of male virlity.  According to Bob Coburn, who worked principally at Columbia, Cooper was 'embarrassed a little bit at constantly being photographed.  He preferred to be in movement in front of the camera.'

At the top of his game and for unknown reasons, Richee left Paramount in 1941 to go to Warner Brothers.  A. L. 'Whitey' Schafer, who had been in the top position at Columbia, replaced Richee.  This change indicated that Paramount's image was shifting away from the opulent glamour that had typified publicity material released during the two previous decades.

Richee later worked for MGM and Warner Brothers.  In his role, Richee became the premiere photographer of stars such as Dorothy Lamour, Jean Arthur, Mae West, Gary Cooper, and Fay Wray, William Powell, Irene Dunne, Veronica Lake, Fredrick March, Nancy Carroll, Gloria Swanson, and Carole Lombard.

Some stars became so accustomed to Richee they wanted only to work with him.  Miriam Hopkins was one of them.  It was said she was quite curt and figidity when Richee was working elsewhere and she had to be photographed instead by William Walling.  Walling says: "She was being difficult from the moment she arrived, because Richee was not there."

Oddly enough, Dietrich herself was much more pleasant when she found out that Richee was on vacation and she would have to be photographed by Walling.  Of course, Von Sternberg was with her.

Virgil Apger, Richee's assistant (and brother-in-law) developed Richee's negatives, worked on with the dryers, and made prints.  He recalled: "Gene never left a sitting with fewer than a hundred negatives, which had to be retouched and printed."  Retouching was the norm by then for all photographers in Hollywood.

Richee passed away on April 21, 1972 in Orange County, California. He was survived by his wife, Levaughn Larson.

Some examples of his work:

Marlene Dietrich


A classic Louise Brooks.

Veronica Lake

Barbara Stanwyck

Carole Lombard

Mae West
Anna Mae Wong


A color photo of Veronica Lake.

Here is a mention of Richee's work and technique:

Here are some examples of the backs of photos showing the ink stamps.  Richee also sometimes had his name embossed on the bottom right hand side of the photo.

Irene Dunne with an array of ink stamps.

Richee with assistant, John Engstead getting ready to shoot photos of Marlene Dietrich.  Of course, Von Sternberg isn't too far behind.