A great collector discerns quality before anyone else notices it.
John Kobal (1940-1991) was in Los Angeles in the 1960s at a time when the Hollywood studios were clearing out their libraries of still photographs. Kobal often was invited to take his pick, according to his friend the critic John Russell Taylor. At other times, he was tipped off when the images were being dumped so he would follow and fill his car.
Some of those gleanings can be seen in “Glamour of the Gods: Photographs From the John Kobal Foundation” at the National Portrait Gallery (through Oct. 23) in London. Here are glittering divas and handsome movie heroes from Gloria Swanson to Marilyn Monroe. By Monroe’s era, Kobal’s enthusiasm was running out. He was a star-struck romantic, and in his view the “gods” and “titans” of Hollywood belonged to the ‘20s and the ‘30s.
Those publicity shots he rescued are partly performance art. Joan Crawford told Kobal, “I photographed better than I looked so it was easy for me… I let myself go before the camera.” The result, in an MGM still from 1933 by Clarence Sinclair Bull, was a blend of regal beauty and emotional intimacy.
Crawford and the others were doing what they did best, acting to camera. The studio photographers were deploying, often brilliantly, all the arts of traditional portraiture: lighting, composition, costume and flattery. The latter took the form of extensive retouching.
There’s a telling comparison between shots of Crawford by George Hurrell in 1930, before and after this treatment. Au naturel, she has worry lines and freckles -- still beautiful, yet vulnerably human. No goddess. This brings out a truth: The histories of painting and photography have always been closely intertwined (all the more so today thanks to Photoshop). These photographs are altered by hand-painting; conversely, of course, painters often use photography as a tool.
“Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century,” an outstanding exhibition at the Royal Academy (until Oct. 2), demonstrates the same point in a different way. Robert Capa, one of the major photographers included, once remarked, “It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian.” That was a backhanded way of emphasizing how many masters of the camera emerged from Hungary between 1920 and 1940.
Just why that Central European nation was so photographically fertile is hard to say. What the major figures -- Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Brassai, Martin Munkacsi and Andre Kertesz -- had in common was modernism. They use the same tight geometrical structure and pared-down forms as a painter such as Mondrian, whose studio apartment was the subject of a marvelous photograph by Kertesz.
Line and Energy
Moholy-Nagy actually was an abstract artist as well as a photographer. Munkacsi’s “Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika” (1930) has the fluent line and bounding energy of a Matisse, found in the real world and recorded in a split second (this image inspired Cartier-Bresson’s whole career). A few years later, Munkacsi went to the U.S. and began the modern tradition of fashion photography, an artificial art if ever there was one.
If the actual scene didn’t quite have the correct arrangement of lines and surfaces, these photographers might adjust it. Kertesz moved Mondrian’s vase to create the right curve, while Capa may have staged his celebrated and endlessly controversial “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936).
That possibility only bothers those who confuse photography and truth. Like the still of Crawford sans freckles, Capa’s image of a falling Spanish Republican isn’t raw reality. It’s art.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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