17 October 2011

Silver Screen Stars

Garbo. Harlow. Dietrich. Gable. These are just a few of the stars featured in an exhibit at the Grolier Club—“Silver Screen/Silver Prints: Hollywood Portrait Photographs from the Robert Dance Collection.” The exhibit examines the genre of portraiture during Hollywood’s Golden Age and the great photographers who created the glamour portraits of Hollywood's legendary stars.

Starting with the leading photographers of the silent era—James Abbe, Albert Witzel, and Alfred Cheney Johnston (famous for his Ziegfeld Follies portraits)—the exhibit is broken up into ten sections, each dedicated to a single photographer, star, or theme. Even if you've seen some of these images before in books, nothing compares to looking at these lovely silver prints with all of their nuanced details in person.

One of my favourite photographers in the exhibit was Ruth Harriet Louise. The first woman to work as a portrait photographer in Hollywood, she was the head of MGM’s portrait studio when she was just 22. A striking example of her work is a photograph of Myrna Loy portrayed as a sophisticate, a type she played on screen as Nora Charles in the Thin Man series. This was probably one of the loveliest portraits in the exhibit.

The section on Ramon Navarro illustrates through a mix of portraits and film stills how he perfectly embodied the role of romantic lead on screen. A portrait by Carl Van Vechten, better known for his photographs of members of the Harlem Renaissance, is especially modern looking; it wouldn’t look out of place in a magazine today.

Other great photographers in the exhibit include Clarence Sinclair Bull, who captured Jean Harlow shortly before her death on the set of her last film Saratoga, and George Hurrell, whose portraits of stars like Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer probably helped to define the Hollywood glamour portrait more than any other photographer in the 1930s and 40s.

The last photo in the exhibit is the famous portrait of Louise Brooks with her pearls taken by Eugene Robert Richee in 1928. This image perfectly symbolizes what Hollywood portraiture is all about—the melding of art with a star’s beauty, resulting in an iconic image.

Seeing exhibits at the Grolier Club is always enjoyable. Founded in 1884, the Grolier Club is the oldest society of bibliophiles in the country and is housed in a lovely townhouse. Best of all, their exhibits are free.

Silver Screen/Silver Prints is on through November 12, 2011.

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