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Out of the Celluloid Closet

July 27, 2006 By:
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I am a deep and abiding fan of Stanley Kubrick's films -- at least the early ones, before the bloat of "2001: A Space Odyssey" sent his career on a different trajectory altogether. And like most fans, I'm well aware, even when it comes to the films I hold less dear, that they're filled with striking images. You can begin at the very beginning, with his low-budget works like "Killer's Kiss" from 1955, and find a striking visual imagination at play.

And yet it came as a complete surprise to me to discover that he'd also been a still photographer of note. Those who are curious about this short span of his creative life can find the products of this period in the new book Stanley Kubrick, Drama & Shadows: Photographs 1945-1950, recently published by Phaidon.

According to the book's editor, Rainer Crone (who has contributed an overly academic assessment to the volume), the photos drawn together were done by Kubrick during the five years he worked for Look magazine, which at the time was the main competitor to Life.

"Kubrick's Look photos appeared in the magazine in various formats and croppings," he writes, "although only roughly 20 percent of the total 12,000 archived negatives were finally published. Buried in the midst of lesser-quality photo-essays, advertisements and other visual distractions, Kubrick's images were never before judged for their unique visionary quality, formal liberty or thematic significance."

The discovery of the photos, Crone notes, date back to a graduate seminar he taught on the director in 1993 at the Institute of Art History of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. At that time, it seemed that these images were untraceable, though Crone assumed that Kubrick had at least archived his own negatives.

"Astonishingly," he comments, "Kubrick told me that neither negatives nor vintage prints were ever in his possession. He emphasized that he didn't even hold the copyrights to his photography, as he had been employed at Look as a staff photographer."

Kubrick encouraged the scholar to search for the negatives, even though he had no idea where they might be.

So Crone conducted the research, along with a team of students focused on finding back issues of Look. An exhibit based on this 1940s-era work was eventually organized in 1999 by the International Center for Curatorial Studies (ICCARUS), a program Crone established in Munich, and went on to tour Paris, Cologne and Berlin.

The research continued beyond the life of the exhibit, and "the sensational original negatives finally tracked down in a cold-storage facility in Ohio owned by the Library of Congress, and in the archives of the Museum of the City of New York, which had been in possession of two-thirds of Kubrick's negatives since Look donated them in 1952. The photographs had been untouched and unresearched since that time."

Once freed from the confines of storage -- and the magazine that originally housed them, along with a mass of competing images -- Crone says that "the photographs express Kubrick's mature visual intelligence, which clearly pay homage to the great names of photo history, including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alexander Rodchenko and László Moholy-Nagy. These images also display a precociously developed autonomous approach to the photo-essay that puts Kubrick -- despite his tender age at the time of their shooting -- in the company of Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Louis Faurer and, indeed, William Eggleston."

Drama & Shadows is divided into four sections, given the headings: Metropolitan Life, Entertainment, Celebrities and Human Behavior. Like all Phaidon books, it is printed on thick quality paper, which gives rise to textured black-and-white tones that have more nuances, it seems, than any color could contain.

After you peruse these images, you will see the correctness of Crone's list of influences on Kubrick's style. And to these illustrious names, you'll want to add the likes of great photographers like Helen Levitt and Berenice Abbott, and Eugene Atget and most of the fabulous street photographers in the New York school, like Weegee and Saul Leiter and ...

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