Rob Hardy on books


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Still Pictures of the Motion Pictures



Rob Hardy


We hardly think about the stills from motion pictures; we assume that the pictures that used to go onto cards displayed in movie theater lobbies, or reproduced in movie magazines or publicity packs are just frames from the movie itself. It's not a good assumption now, and it especially was not when movies were just coming into being and when image dominated all. The world had not come to an understanding of what these new film celebrities were, and the stills helped define them. How important this particular facet of silent movies was is shown in . It is a handsome book with scores of reproductions of stills, some from the collection of the author, who says he began acquiring them "in the era of eBay before the value of these images began to ramp skyward in 2004 - 5." This is a valuable historical review of an important foundation of Hollywood as we know it now, with detailed descriptions of the work and careers of many influential photographers who established the meaning of celebrity. 




Shields traces the roots of movie stills to the stills from the stage, such as the work of Napoleon Sarony, who created a niche of taking pictures of actors on Broadway at a time when visual extravaganzas were becoming popular. He paid the big stars for the right to use their pictures, while others paid him for their shots. He developed a system of production of images of the stars which he shipped to other photographers and newsdealers on the route of touring companies, and he won the right to copyright such images. He was also adept at dealing with temperamental stars, coaxing them with compliments, conversation, and refreshments within his luxurious studio, while giving hand signals to the man actually behind the camera to expose the plates. Sarony's technique for sittings, and his emotive photographs, would be a model for photographers who moved into taking stills for the movies of the actors who had similarly moved from stage to screen. When cinema first started up as an industry, it was in New York City, so the photographers used the same sorts of techniques as before, and when movie magazines started in the 1910s, they were issued from New York, and had a ready local supply of pictures. It was these photographers that defined "glamour" in a way it had never been seen before; society photographers who had taken just formal pictures of rich clients were soon being asked to use the same visual techniques used on the stars. 




Studios began experimenting with advertising around 1910, taking advantage of the emergence of the movie star phenomenon. Managers of theaters and nickelodeons recognized the audience's eagerness for pictures to take home, and requested supplies from the movie producers. Publicity campaigns had included broadsheets with tiny pictures, or full posters, but the public's desire for photos, combined with the advent of movie magazines, made stills important. Directors and producers realized that still photos not from the film itself, but especially staged and lit, could convey effectively the mood and meaning of a picture, besides satisfying star-struck fans. The increased emphasis on stills was not, Shields explains, from a desire to make works of art, and they were advertising rather than portraits. However, that the photographers took their assignments seriously can be seen in the many beautiful photographs here. Like any other form of publicity, the still photographs went through style changes, with soft focus, for instance, giving way to sharp, and a deep image to something flat and almost abstract. The press noticed, and showed appreciation, chiding a studio that would show merely "the beautiful So-and-So in her new car" and advising that the still was the heart of the advertising for a movie, the basis for the poster, press sheets, and lobby ads.  




Shields gives details on many careers in the stills business, some of those careers odd and most of them unknown except to specialists. A strange example is Charles Albin, chosen by Lillian Gish to make her stills for Romola in 1924. (Lillian Gish was particularly aware of how much still pictures could influence a movie and her career.) Albin had a devout Catholic upbringing, and entered holy orders, going to a monastery where he painted devotional pictures. When the administration of the monastery changed, and didn't think such pictures of value, he was defrocked but continued using both his camera and paintbrushes for portraits. He almost died in the 1918 flu pandemic, and indeed surprised all the doctors by waking up when he was on a slab in the morgue. To shoot stills for Romola which was set in the Renaissance, he went with the production company to Italy. In what sounds "just like Hollywood," the filmmakers found the modernity of Florence too intrusive, so they built a replica fifteenth-century version on the outskirts of the real thing. Albin's sharp, detailed, and beautifully composed pictures look like oils from the period; they were among the first movie stills collected as art objects in themselves. In Florence, however, Albin was mistakenly arrested for a grisly murder, and his hair went white on death row. Evidence showed someone else guilty, and he was freed, to return to work in New York and Hollywood. The new incandescent lights on the sets bothered his eyes, and he retired to paint flowers. He eventually rejoined the church and lived the rest of his live again in a monastery. 




Shields implies that the stills on Romola were actually more impressive than the movie itself. This is not the only instance of this sort of imbalance. Lillian Gish's movie The Wind of 1924 had a tragic ending, which Irving Thalberg ordered re-shot to make it all happy. One of the stills here shows Gish on her knees, looking with fright over her shoulder as her long hair waves in the wind, a spectacular evocation of menace and fear. "The stills," Shields says, "did not suffer the stupidity of the film's ending." The pacing for the Roman Catholic nun's wedding to Christ in Lillian Gish's The White Sister was soporific, but "when seen in stills, the film is visually one of the most impressive of the silent era." Some of the stills reproduced here are from movies that no longer exist; maybe eighty percent of the silent films made are lost forever, and the stills are all we have to remind us of them. Shields reminds us of the paradox: "The moving image seemed more real, more sensational, more alive precisely in its difference from the arrested world of the painted image, the drawing, the still photograph. Yet by a curious irony, the silent cinema has in a large measure been reduced to an array of stills." 




Shields quotes Baby Peggy, the last of the silent era child stars: "After the talkies came in, nobody collected silent film or silent film stars' portrait stills and autographs. I saw thousands of stills being burned in Hollywood's backyard incinerators where homeowners burned their trash." Fans cast them off, just as the studios did; the collections of the photographers themselves have been passed down and broken up for sale by the heirs. Now collectors and film libraries acknowledge the beauty and the value of these images. The black-and-white pictures in this book are gorgeous. There are too few of them, but there could be twice as many and I'd feel the same way. Shields's detailed text easily explains why he is so enthusiastic about his subject, and is a fine documentation of the start of movie glamour. 




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