Monday, February 23, 2015

How To Take An Old Hollywood Glamour Photo

I have many, many fond memories of studying abroad in Australia, some that I keep to myself like a selfish glutton and some that I love to tell to others. Some of these memories are simple and seemingly unimportant, and some of them are so strange that I sometimes find it hard to believe that I had done the things that I did. Sadly, I can't remember what I learned in the classroom, but it's the experiences that you have outside the classroom that matter most, right?

Anyway, when I was there, I would walk to the Dymocks bookshop on Collins Street in Melbourne every single day. I never got tired of it. Soon enough, the staff knew who I was and we all became good friends. They knew me as the New York girl whose credit card never worked because it didn't have a chip.

There was one week in which my friend from a different part of Australia came to visit me in Melbourne. Our days were spent mostly walking aimlessly through the city, traipsing along by river, exploring whatever caught our fancy, eating and drinking in the hidden cafes we found in alleyways, and of course, visiting every single bookshop we came across. At Dymocks, my friend found an enormous book of Old Hollywood glamour photos. It must have been over a thousand pages and probably weighed over a thousand pounds. There was no way either of us could buy it. We had baggage weight limits to consider.

"Let's read it here then!" he said.

There was only one armchair in that huge bookstore and it was made to fit one person, but we squished ourselves in it to the best of our abilities. Limbs stuck out at odd angles here and there but we sat there and read that entire gargantuan book from cover to cover for hours. Thankfully the staff did not beg us to please vacate the chair for someone else.

That book taught me a lot about the oft-overlooked lost art of the Old Hollywood glamour photo and of the celebrity culture of long ago. I've been fascinated by Old Hollywood since I was a child, but my obsession with that time period really kicked off in high school, a time when I felt very isolated from most of the other students. The films gave me warmth and company and I was happy that I finally found something that I could love deeply. I cut off all my hair and began experimenting with wearing my bob in Hollywood-style curls. I began to experiment with makeup. Later I grew my hair out and tried to achieve a 1930s/1940s long, waved style. I wanted so badly to look like those silver screen goddesses. I still want to look like them!

You don't have to watch any classic films to get the idea of how celebrities were perceived at that time. The glamour photos show it all. Movie stars didn't even seem human. They looked like gods or titans or something supernatural. Whatever it was, they looked too perfect to be from this earth. Their skin was flawless, poreless, smooth like the marble skin of a Renaissance sculpture. Their hair shone brilliantly in waves spread around their heads like halos, the lines of their bodies perfectly posed like the works of art you would see in the Deco period. The dramatic lighting and poses of these photos made it clear that these people weren't actors. They were icons. Take a look at a few of them and try not to let your jaw drop to the floor:

Bette Davis, 1939, by George Hurrell.
Jean Harlow, 1932, by George Hurrell.
Clark Gable, 1938, by Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Cary Grant, unknown (maybe late 1930s-early 1940s).
Despite the beauty of the Old Hollywood glamour photo, it's a forgotten art. For one thing, our idea of celebrity has changed. We don't really worship them the same way as moviegoers of the 1920s to the 1940s worshiped them. Now, they're easy targets thanks to an invasive paparazzi and the internet. Celebrities today do not have the mystery and allure that celebrities had back then, simply because technology and the media has moved so quickly that it has become impossible. We know what they look like without makeup, we know what they look like when they go grocery shopping, and we know what they look like at their very worst times. Audiences today want to see celebrities as they really are, but back then, audiences wanted to see them as beautiful dreams. Fashion magazine photoshoots probably try to recapture the magic of the glamour photo, but for some inexplicable reason, they fall short. Probably it's because today's photos are taken in color. Black and white has a sort of mystical aura about it that made these people seem unreal. Probably it's because the photos aren't as stark or as moody or maybe it's because the interviews that accompany these photos give too much information or are too stilted and fake.

So yes, the glamour photo is dead. However, that long afternoon spent with my right leg draped over one arm of the chair and my friend's left leg draped over the other arm of the chair taught me how to recreate it. The work that went into these photos was unbelievably laborious and intensive. So, if you ever find yourself with a vintage camera, vintage darkroom equipment, and klieg lights, here's how to do it:

They Had Photoshop Back Then
Yes, even the Swing era retouched their photos! I was very surprised when I learned this. However,
Old Hollywood's photo retouching was done entirely by hand. It was a tedious, painstaking process that took over six hours to complete. The negatives for these photos were huge--about 8x10 inches. Multiple duplicates of these negatives were made because they would get so scraped and scored and stippled and drawn on in the process. In addition to physically scraping away at the unwanted areas of the photo, photo retouchers would also physically airbrush the photos to give the skin that marble appearance. Here's what it would look like when it's all done:

Before: Joan Crawford unretouched image by George Hurrell, 1931. She had a lot of freckles (that she hated) and some laugh lines, dark circles, and brow furrows. In short, she looked like a real person.
After: Joan Crawford as everyone knew her-- a glamorous film star.
The Photographer
Of course, this retouching would not have been possible without the brilliant creativity of legendary photographers such as George Hurell, Ernest Bachrach, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Ruth Harriet Luise. The photographer had to have a deep understanding of lighting, setup, and composition. The photoshoots, like the photo retouching, were a very long process, sometimes lasting literally all day. An actor would go through multiple costume and hair and makeup changes. The only exception to this rule was foundation. Stars were told to come to the sessions with clean faces except for eye makeup and lipstick when applicable, because it was easier to retouch an unmade face. Some stars, such as Joan Crawford, relished the glamour photo process. She was probably the most photographed star, easily doing 20+ costume changes a day without getting tired. Other stars, such as Clark Gable and John Barrymore, absolutely hated the process, putting off their sessions until the last possible minute and grumbling when they finally had to sit in front of the photographer's camera. With more difficult stars, it was also the responsibility of the photographer to keep them awake and cheerful.

Once again, I've let my enthusiasm get the better of me and I've written a post as long as the glamour photo process itself, but I hope that you were able to find it fun and interesting! 


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