The Hollywood Glamour Photograph

Ellen Wright, De Montfort University

6 June 2017


Considering Hollywood’s reliance upon photography between the teens and the 1960s, as a means of promoting, shaping and altering star images, the photographic representation of stars remains a peculiarly underdeveloped area of star studies. This is a real missed opportunity, as these images can offer considerable insights into the construction of film stardom and the pleasures of film fandom during the American cinema’s classical era.

Developments at the start of the twentieth century, in studio, lens and lighting technologies, made effective sharp focus, short depth-of-field and close-up shots all possible, and consequently the iconic Hollywood glamour photograph format, exemplified by the work of photographers such as George Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise, quickly became both popular and codified during this period.

Greta Garbo photographed for Wild Orchids (Ruth Harriet Louise, 1929)

Greta Garbo (George Hurrell, 1930)

Identifying characteristics of the glamour image include dramatic, exaggerated gestures and posturing, a monochrome colour pallet and expressionistic Chiascuro-style lighting to create heavy theatrical shadows and imply danger, emotional ambiguity or depth of character, ‘dramatizing and conferring an atmosphere of sexual allure on the subjects.’[1]

Rather than being a relatively realist rendering of the film star subjects’ body, the glamour photograph fixated upon the star’s physical form as exceptionally desirable, graceful, exotic or spectacular. Using techniques similar to those developed by the earliest of experimental photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, they drew specific attention to singular details (for example, in facial close ups it was the eyes, ‘the window to the soul’) and these were often the only element which appeared in sharp relief. [2]

A truncated depth-of-field imbued the glamour photograph with an unreal, insubstantial and dreamlike aura, and an emphasis upon textures such as reflective surfaces (gelled hair, mirrors, rhinestones, jewels), smooth complexions, wisps of cigarette smoke and translucent fabrics all helped to suggest a sensory excess.

In light of such conventions and considering the tendency to carefully light actresses hair or backlight subjects in such images, producing a halo of light behind the stars head, it is not surprising that such images and the stars they depict have often discussed within a psychoanalytical framework and why the film stars of this era came to be known in the popular consciousness as enviable screen ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses.’ [3]

The epitome of the exotic, revered Hollywood goddess, and possibly the most obvious choice for an example of a Hollywood glamour image subject is Marlene Dietrich, an actress whose close, collaborative relationship with Svengali director Joseph Von Sternberg resulted in an expert ability to utilise light in order to sculpt her own appearance and a close association with the medium close-up.

In a 1937 promotional image for the Ernst Lubitsch film Angel, Dietrich is shot in medium close-up, in a spectacular, white, feather headdress, her bare right shoulder in the foreground, presented directly to the lens.

Marlene Dietrich (George Hurrell, 1937)

Her left hand with its long, dark, gleaming fingernails, stroke her bare shoulder, inviting the spectator to contemplate the sensual experience of caressing Dietrich’s flesh. Furthermore, the composition, with the subject framed horizontally across the image, invites the spectator to read across the picture, left to right, head, to face, to shoulder, to hand. And as there is no sign of clothing in this image, presumably they are invited to imagine what falls below Dietrich’s shoulders and beyond the camera’s gaze.

The combination of feather headdress and the talon-like nails, carry a primal or animalistic implication. Dietrich is an exotic ‘creature,’ to be admired in her plush habitat. Here she is posed against satin upholstery, presumably either an approximation of luxurious booth seating in a high-class night club or an index for an opulent boudoir setting.

She tilts her head to her right, provocatively revealing her bare neck, allowing the chiaroscuro lighting to catch her cheekbones and the long, dark lashes of her heavily made-up eyes. The tilt of her head also suggests she is lost in reverie. Despite repeatedly playing fallen or sexually ambiguous women who were often brought low within film narratives, Dietrich herself had an aloof, untouchable quality. In line with that established star persona, and with a broader art tradition of iconic female archetypes such as the muse and the Madonna, Dietrich may be presented here as an object of desire but her facial expression, her pose, the short depth of field and the way she is lit, in that classic three-point style which created the ‘virtual aura’ identified by Dyer as being typical in such imagery, make her appear beatific, distant and ethereal.

The key appeal of the glamour photograph appears to have been the flagrant glorification of its film star subjects, the way these images allowed the player to demonstrate both their ‘personality’ and their acting range (see for example images produced of Garbo or Crawford by Ruth Harriet Louise) through the emphasis upon their invariably flawless visage (the face in glamour photography performs a metonymical function; carrying the burden of the star persona through feature or expression) as well as the ‘closer’ emotional access that these images purported to offer audiences to the pictured star, precisely because of the images’ facial/emotional preoccupation.

Both exoticised and, in some ways, legitimised by being ‘artful’ in form, the glamour photograph may have appeared to offer privileged access but it often concealed as much as it revealed. Its mise-en-scéne was meticulously crafted to project an air of sophisticated modernity, an image of glamorous perfection entirely denuded of any extraneous mundane details that may link its ethereal subject to humdrum reality.

 Unfortunately, this contrivance also had the added consequence of heightening the potential for the film star subject to be perceived as a malleable element within the photographic mise-en-scéne and as a result it is also not unusual for classical era Hollywood stars and the fans who enjoyed and collected these images to be discussed in passive terms, as victims of an exploitative industrial system and for the glamour photograph and the industry who produced them to be treated as suspect.

Certainly, the stars’ eyes, lips, lashes, coiffure, eyebrows, cheekbones, complexion, jewellery, clothing, were all subject to sculpting, editing or (what was referred to in the Hollywood’s burgeoning cosmetics industry as) ‘glamorisation’ in pre-production, and post-production by the notorious airbrush. The glamour image conveyed a stars’ emotional authenticity or integrity, but its conspicuous and careful construction simultaneously suggested inauthenticity or even deception or trickery. As a product intended for mass reproduction and distribution which lacked a true ‘original’ (with the exception of the negative – in itself a questionable original), the glamour photograph lacks an ‘aura’ and thus artistic legitimacy. [4] As Benjamin notes:

The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. [5]

Benjamin’s use of the term ‘spell’ here alludes to a notion of misdirection or glamour (the word ‘glamour’ being etymologically linked with witchcraft), whilst marking the star phenomenon as a ‘cult’ and a ‘commodity’ suggests an industry cynicism and that followers are devotees, lured by a heady combination of aspiration and sex appeal. This interpretation is not unreasonable, considering the plethora of monochrome images featuring stars in exotic, utopic or sumptuous settings (signified though palms and bamboo shutters, satin sheets, draped furs, modern art deco lobbies), reclining or recumbent, in poses that carry implications of passivity and/or eroticism whilst also suggest an enviable lifestyle of comfort and idling.

For me these images’ complex, deliberately multi-layered mise-en-scéne and overt contrivance, whilst simultaneously claiming to reveal an impossible level of access to ‘stars’ who somehow managed to possess what Dyer terms as ‘extraordinary ordinariness,’ their insistence upon authenticity despite overwhelming evidence of fabrication, is what makes the glamour photograph so fascinating. [6] These images perfectly encapsulate how Hollywood saw itself, and how we, the audiences saw, and still see Hollywood, as a place of ostentatious, extraordinary excess, whose idols were painstakingly fashioned through cosmetics, costuming, training and manner, situation and perhaps most importantly, soft focus.


[1] Gundle, S and Castelli, C.T. The Glamour System (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) p. 71

[2] Whose work comprised of religious, mythical and romantic iconography and tableau vivants.

[3] As Dyer notes ‘Glamour of the Classical Hollywood period relied on creating a glowing image for the female star – the convention of three types of lighting, key, fill and back, established in the 1920’s, created a virtual aura around the female stars.’ Dyer, R. White: Essays on Race and Culture. (London: Routledge, 1997). p.87.  Carol Dyhouse’s brief discussion of the black and white photography of Hollywood cinema also identifies some key characteristics of the photographic genre. See Dyhouse, C. Glamour: Women History, Feminism (London: Zed books, 2010) p.30-33

[4] As Benjamin observes ‘aura is tied to… presence; there can be no replica of it.’ Benjamin, W. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ Holmes, S and Redmond, S (eds) Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader (London: Sage, 2007) p.8

[5] ibid. p.9

[6] A paradox whereby in short Hollywood stars ‘live more expensively than the rest of us, but are not essentially transformed by this’ See Dyer, R. Stars (London: BFI, 1979) p.43


Dr Ellen Wright is the VC2020 Lecturer in Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University, Leicester. She has taught film studies, media studies, and photographic theory, and specializes in the representation of femininity in the leisure industries, consumer culture, and broader social contexts, surrounding classical Hollywood cinema. Her academic publications include ‘Spectacular Bodies: The Swimsuit, Sexuality and Hollywood,’ special edition on leisure industries, Sport in History 35, no. 3 (2015) and ‘Having her Cheesecake and Eating It: Performance, Professionalism and the Politics of the Gaze in the Pin-Up Self-Portraiture and Celebrity of Bunny Yeager’ Feminist Media Histories Special Edition ‘Histories of Celebrity’ (Fall, 2016). She is currently working on a series of public engagement events linked to her research on the media representation of the women who performed at the Windmill Theatre in London.

http://www.dmu.ac.uk/about-dmu/academic-staff/technology/ellen-wright/ellen-wright.aspx

 

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2 Comments

  1. A topic matching my academic research directly – Ellen, you may be interested to see my chapter on Still Famous: Fixing the Star Image of Diana Dors in the Photography of Cornel Lucas in ‘Lasting Screen Stars’ http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137407320
    and also around the creation of celebrity through the production stills in http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/working-in-the-global-film-and-television-industries-9781780930206/

  2. Ellen – this is interesting, and matches the topic of my own academic research into stills photographers and the construction of stardom. I have a couple of chapters in edited collections published by Bloomsbury and Palgrave if you would be interested in seeing.

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