Through A Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs @MCNY

JTF (just the facts): A total of 132 black-and-white photographs, 42 offset photographic reproductions in vitrines (double-page spreads or covers from Look magazine) and two films on video monitors, installed in three rooms of the third floor in the southern gallery, on the outer walls and both sides of a central partition. The photographs range in size from 8×8 to 30×30 inches and are organized chronologically (1947-1951) by curators Donald Albrecht and Sean Corcoran. (Installation shots below.)

A companion volume has recently been published by Taschen (here) in English, French, and German. Hardcover, 11×13 inches, 332 pages, with essays by Corcoran, Albrecht, and an introduction by Luc Sante, and more than 300 black-and-white and color photographic reproductions, $70.

Comments/Conext: Ever since the 1870s, when Muybridge invented cameras to foster the illusion that images could move, still photography and motion picture photography have co-existed as friendly rivals.  Muybridge himself kept up with both until his death in 1904, while some of the most prominent cinematographers in the silent era—Billy Bitzer, Hendrick Sartov, Karl Struss—had learned their craft after visualizing scenes and lighting figures one frame at a time.

Man Ray, Robert Frank, William Klein, and Helen Levitt showed that the two modes of photographing could be pursued at the same high level  and that you needn’t choose one over the other, a practice now common-place in the art world. Others saw cinema as a higher calling, or perhaps just a more involving, complex, risky, and lucrative one. When Stanley Kubrick and Gordon Parks made the transition from New York photojournalists to Hollywood directors, they didn’t look back.

Numerous critics have wondered what Kubrick learned during his first career that prepared him to pursue his second. A few exhibitions have taken a stab at answering the question. The splendid 2012 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art displayed a fine sample of his early photographs, along with some of the cameras and lenses that he used to make them.

But no curators have explored the relationship as diligently as Donald Albrecht and Sean Corcoran have here for Museum of the City of New York. Housing more than 12,000 contact sheets for a group of 129 stories that Kubrick shot on assignment for Look, the MCNY is the proper venue for such an investigation. Albrecht and Corcoran have also coordinated with the Library of Congress, which bought the Look archive when the magazine folded in 1971 and owns Kubrick holdings of comparable scope.

The Bronx-born Kubrick was only 17 in 1945 when he sold his first photograph (a portrait of a sad-faced news vendor surrounded by headlines proclaiming F.D.R.s death) to Look. The picture magazine was one of many to pop up in the 1930s and became a highly successful bi-weekly (circ. 2.9 million in 1948) that offered a slightly askew view of the world.

It didn’t have the budget to be global and, as the historian Mary Panzer has noted, its penury was in some ways a blessing. The editorial process was less constricted by a hierarchy—freelancers were welcome—than governed behavior at Life, where photographers felt weekly deadline pressures to be topical and had to go about their business with an imposing sense of high moral purpose. Many of Life’s photographers in the late ’40s were heroes, witnesses to WWII’s tragedies—W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt; Look’s were relative nobodies. (Journalists who wrote in the 1960s and ‘70s for Newsweek, considered the poor stepchild to Time, had a similar freedom from weighty expectations.)

Even though almost all the photographs in Look were taken by men, many of the stories, under the influence of the publisher’s wife, Fleur Cowles, targeted female consumers. The magazine had a regular feature, “For Women Only,” and took care to provide a family-friendly platform for advertizers that did not permit many intrusions of stridulous reality into its pages during the post-war years.

This survey of Kubrick’s early endeavors offers a good sense both of his outlandish precocity, a regular contributor when barely out of high school, and of the limitations that the genre of commercial photojournalism imposed on his ambition.

To be granted permission to photograph anyone throughout the most vibrant city in the world—and to be paid for it—must have been intoxicating. New York in the late ’40s was teeming with optimism and prosperity, compared to the bombed and impoverished cities of Europe and Asia. Kubrick’s subjects—a shoeshine boy, mothers shopping, boxers, circus performers, university students, celebrities—seemed eager to have their stories told. Instead of reacting with suspicion or rage to the presence of a photographer, strangers in the streets were happy to make silly faces for him. His work was liked enough by his bosses that his name was added to the masthead with the January 7, 1947 issue.

The magazine allowed him to stretch out in long-form narratives. “Life and Love on the New York Subway,” a 1947 story illustrated with portraits of anonymous riders of various classes and ages, resembles the series taken sneakily between 1938-1941 by Walker Evans, although, as Luc Sante notes in his introduction, Kubrick couldn’t possibly have seen this as yet unpublished essay.

One of the perks for a photographer working at a magazine is the change to borrow gear you couldn’t afford on your own, and Kubrick seems to have taken full advantage. In the story “Fun at an Amusement Park: Look Visits Palisades Park” (June 24, 1947), you can see him trying out different lenses (long ones for a voyeuristic effect) and ground-level angles (looking up as a man as he drives a long hammer on a “Ring the Bell” strength game.) He had learned how to handle serious equipment from an early age—at the age of 13 his father gave him a Graflex—and the majority of the photographs in the show were done with medium-format cameras.

By 1948 the magazine was already promoting Kubrick in its own pages. The anonymous writer of a teasing article titled “A veteran photographer at 19, Stanley Kubrick makes up for youth with zeal” described how the teenager had ordered his subjects around on an assignment at Columbia University.

His obsessive personality seems to have been a topic of affectionate respect. “When Stanley joined the staff, his fellow photographers were quick to observe his intense preoccupation with his work. In a spirit of friendly cooperation, they formed a “Bringing Up Stanley Club,” dedicated to reminding Stanley not to forget his keys, glasses, overshoes and other miscellaneous trivia.” The writer credits these older photographers with encouraging young Stanley to trade in his “saddle shoes, lounge jackets, and sports shirts” for “glen plaid business suits and white shirts.” The writer also adds—with unknowing prescience—that “in his spare time, Stanley experiments with cinematography and dreams of the day when he can make documentary films.”

The curators contend these essays also presage Kubrick’s film career in their visual style: “While Look’s editors often promoted straightforward compositions and natural lighting typical of contemporary photojournalism, Kubrick frequently imitated the brooding style of the Hollywood film noirs he admired.”

I can’t share this opinion. Other than an essay on Aqueduct Racetrack, shot in 1947 with a somber palette of blacks and grays—and a confident, improvisational flair—an air of oppressive doom and complex lighting schemes is not conspicuous in his other photographs. The frustrations and dreams of these horse players, men and women, all of them at the track hoping for a big score that will probably never be more than a little one, seems to anticipate the tense setting for the racetrack heist in The Killing (1956), his third feature film and, along with Killer’s Kiss (1955), Kubrick at his most noir.

One of the curiosities of the show is how formulaic and sappy many of the stories are. His celebrity profiles of Leonard Bernstein, Rocky Graziano, and television personality Faye Emerson don’t contain a single striking photograph. His boxing compositions are static, compared to those by sports specialists like Charles Hoff.

Oddly, as Kubrick’s career at Look advanced, the material that his photographs were enlisted to dramatize grew increasingly more celebrity-oriented or trivial. It’s hard to believe that the director of Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey once illustrated a story titled “What Teenagers Should Know about Love.”

Kubrick was likely asked by his editors to contribute because he was barely older than a teenager himself. He may have accepted to see what he would do with the challenge of staging photographs on a topical theme. The story opens with black-and-white photograph of a despairing young woman. She stands with her back to a white wall on which she has scrawled the words “I HATE LOVE! in lipstick. In other scenes, the long-legged girl is ogled by two high school lotharios as she strolls past.

Kubrick can’t have been happy, though, by the treatment of his work—overwhelmed by a full-page color ad for Studebaker on the opposite page—within the magazine. (Perhaps he was able later to channel the experience of imagining the lives of petulant and oversexed teenage women when directing Sue Lyon in Lolita.)

MCNY should be congratulated for displaying so many copies of actual spreads and magazine covers. Photojournalism exhibitions tend to underplay the importance of these items. Galleries are in the business of selling prints, not back issues of Life, Look, Fortune, and Vu, and so often don’t include them at all.

That can lead to a historical distortion. Magazines and newspapers were about the only places where photographers from 1900-1960 were likely to see their work viewed by a large audience soon after an image was printed. Books were rare, exhibitions rarer yet. (One might even argue that the magazine should be treated as the “original” artifact, with the print being an object of secondary residue.)

By presenting the context for Kubrick’s photographs, one can appreciate how little control the photographer had over the treatment of his or her work—in terms of cropping, reproduction quality, position on the page and within the gestalt of mass communication. Publishers were far more concerned with ad revenue than preserving the artistic integrity of the photographer and his or her images.

As a director, Kubrick was notorious for controlling every aspect of the filmmaking process, spending years in pre-production, demanding dozens of takes from actors, and insisting on final cut. It’s not hard to think that he developed this attitude after seeing how his photographs were mangled—and by one of the hippest of the big-circulation picture magazines.

Robert Frank and Louis Faurer, unhappy with the hustle of photojournalism, transferred their energy into personal documentary and into books. Garry Winogrand, at one time a contributor to Look, left its employ without a clear plan other than to escape from the compromises he was forced to make as a photographer for American commercial magazines.

Kubrick didn’t follow that route but instead chose to begin making films. The two examples here, Day of the Fight (1951) and Killer’s Kiss, are both about boxing as an existential battle. The former was a short independently produced documentary about a middleweight and his brother; the latter was fiction, an hour-long feature that traced the fatal romance between a welterweight and a taxi dancer. It was funded by United Artists—his first foray into commercial movies. Kubrick was cinematographer for both.

The symbiotic relationship of photography and movies is neatly summarized in a Look essay from 1947 taken on the set of Naked City. One of the first post-war movies shot on location in New York, it was also probably the first time that Kubrick had ever visited a feature film set. He photographs the crowds of spectators, lying on cars and staring silently with the technicians from behind the light stands as a scene unfolds. The director Jules Dassin is viewed commandingly from below, giving the OK sign to someone out of the frame. A seated actress in sunglasses receives instruction in her chair. The renowned cinematographer, William H. Daniels, supervises a camera set-up.

It has to have been a heady experience to see a movie being made that he had permission to stand so close to—whose job it was to be there. What’s more, the movie had taken its cues from what Kubrick was now doing for a living: It was based, if only in title and spirit, on Weegee’s 1945 best-selling collection of photographs, Naked City.

Is it too farfetched to think as he was photographing these moments, anatomical scenes dissecting the creation of a motion picture, that this driven New York kid and aspiring auteur was thinking to himself: “Hey, this could be me?”

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. While a few of Kubrick’s photographs have come to market in the past decade, there are too few sales to chart much of a consistent price history.

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Read more about: Stanley Kubrick, Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), Taschen

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Terrific read.

    Having been a lifelong fan of Kubrick (the film-maker) I’m admiring of his early photographic work lavishly revealed here but find it unexceptional. That sounds harsh, considering the period, his youthfulness and that he was limited to assignment work. It took him a long time to attain both the maturity of vision as well as win the artistic freedom he needed to create his profoundly important films. Everything, including his magazine work, is decent but compromised until then.

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