Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Great MGM Still Photographer and Academy Award Winner: Virgil Apger

Virgil Apger was born in Indiana on June 25, 1903.  Apger interest in photography began when he was a child in Goodland, Idaho.  His father, the local sheriff, took photographs of the town's criminals.  Apger worked as an usher and assistant to the projectionist of the town's only movie theatre.  His first job in films was as a transportation man and laborer for the Mack Sennett Studios.  In 1929 his brother-in-law, Eugene Robert Richee, who was head of the portrait gallery at Paramount, hired Apger as his assistant.  Apger developed Richee's negatives, worked 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."

He assisted Richee for a time and then went to work for MGM in 1931 doing the same thing Richee had done for years.  He was an assistant to Clarence Sinclair Bull for awhile. He described what it was like working for Bull:

When Bull worked with Garbo, I was the guy changing lights and generally assisting Clarence.  Garbo liked to take things easy.  She was a natural model.  All Clarence had to do was to set the light and squeeze the bulb.  Hurrell's method wouldn't have worked with Garbo--she didn't like any fussing.  There would just be the three of us on her sittings--Clarence, me and the electrician.  Bull would suggest ideas to her, but mostly she would bring the expressions that she had from the movie.

These portraits of Garbo usually lasted half a day each, depending on the costumes and hairstyles worn for her character in the film.  Apger described the mood of these sessions:

"Garbo would arrive quietly.  We would be getting things ready and setting up lights, and maybe an hour would pass and we wouldn't realize she was there.  She liked one sort of lighting, high-key and very little fill.  Garbo didn't tell people what to do, but that's what she liked.  One key light and one top light.  We used a long 14-inch or 22-inch lens to get those close-ups.  She didn't like the camera too close because she'd get too conscious of it.  Sometimes Bull might suggest an idea.  They were nicely tuned to each other."

Soon Jean Harlow gave Apger his start as a production still photographer by requested him to shoot photos on "China Seas" (1935).  He had already worked for the publicity department.  From then on he shot the stills on all her films.  "Doing stills was invaluable training for gallery work," Apger explained.

Apger's enthusiasm on the set made him extremely popular with the stars, and Greer Garson, whose films he worked on, requested him for her portait photographer.

He is noteworthy in Oscar history as well for being the only photographer to receive an Academy Award for "Mrs. Miniver" in 1942 for Best Production Still.

Later, he was put in charge of the portrait gallery in 1947 for MGM, superseding C. S. Bull in that department and for the next 20 years he shot all of their stars: Esther Williams, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Greer Garson, Judy Garland, Robert Taylor, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Kay Kendall, Stewart Granger, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.  Between 1948 and 1952, Apger had the distiction of having more magazine covers--among them, Life, Look and Photoplay--than all of the other photographers at all of the other studios combined.

Apger's work--stylish, glamours, imaginative--stood apart even in the lackluster fifties.  Here are some of his reflections on is profession and the stars he worked with:

Once you got her into the gallery, Esther Williams loved being photograhed and fell into a pose with great ease.  Hedy Lamarr couldn't she though she knew it all and was forever telling you what to do.  She was beautiful--she had great skin texture--but I don't recall anybody saying they enjoyed shooting her.  She never came alive, except to keep making damned uncouth remarks to the people I had around me.

Now Joan Crawford was a swell person to work with.  So was Ava Gardner.  She was open to ideas, ready for anything.  She wasn't just beautiful.  She knew that we had a lot of people to please and she would cooperate all the way.  People like that keep you fresh in your work.

As Hollywood photography changed in the 1950s and 1960s, and sharp lenses, flat light and stiff poses became the norm, Apger continued to stay true to the MGM tradition.  When Elvis Presely came to MGM to make 'Jailhouse Rock' in 1957, he got the studio's typical glamour treatment, including a portrait session with Apger.

He had a long career photographing stars on the set of great classics and as a portrait photographer, photographing many sexy shots of Ava Gardner in fishnet stockings and leotards.  Gardner was one of his favorite subjects.  Their work together is comparable to that of Hurrell's work with Crawford or that of Bull's work with Garbo but with more sexuality, glamour and a friendly sort of approachability.

Some of the many films he did still photography for are: "Spinout", "Bells Are Ringing", "That Forsyte Woman," "Julia Misbehaves", "A Date with Judy", "Homecoming", "Eyes in the Night," and the all time classic favorite, "The Wizard of Oz."

He also took photos of Debbie Reynolds, Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Arlene Dahl, Ann Blyth, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and the Marx Brothers among others.

By the late 1950s, however, after MGM's last great productions, like the 1959 re-make of 'Ben Hur, glamour was over in Hollywood and Apger's departure in 1969 coincided with MGM's takeover by Kirk Kerkorian, which closed the door on the past forever.

When Apger retired from his job as MGM's gallery portrait photographer in 1969, he had been there for 40 years.  For twenty of those years he was the only gallery photographer on the lot. 

He died at the ripe old age of 90 in San Diego, California on May 19, 1994.

Here is a look back at his work:

Debbie Reynolds
Claire Bloom

Elvis Presley

Esther Williams

Ava Gardner

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable

Grace Kelly

Janet Leigh

Elizabeth Taylor

Deborah Kerr

Clark Gable

Jeanette MacDonald
Examples of Apger's official MGM stamp and a press snipe.

Virginia Bruce and the back of the photo below:


  1. Wow, great piece! I'd never heard of him before and am sitting here wondering why I hadn't. Thanks for posting this, especially the examples of his work. Great stuff!

  2. My Cousin has just come across many of his autographed photos....but they are signed to someone named Harris Pace......we don't know who that is.....

  3. What size camera did he use? Did Hollywood make 8x10 copy negs for distribution? - It seems like all the 8x10 negatives I have seen look like negatives of a retouched print - so that the distributors could just slam out hundreds of perfect 8x10 contact prints.