Glamour of the Gods – Hollywood Portraits

Posted on September 25, 2011

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I recently visited the above exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The collection of photographs were presented courtesy of the John Kobal Foundation. To quote the exhibition blurb….

‘Glamour of the Gods is a celebration of Hollywood portraiture from the industry’s ‘Golden Age’, the period 1920 to 1960. From Greta Garbo and Clark Gable to Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, it is these portraits that transformed actors and actresses into international style icons. In many cases these are the career-defining images of Hollywood’s greatest names and help to illustrate their enduring appeal.

Featuring over 70 photographs, most of which are exquisite vintage prints displayed for the first time, the exhibition is drawn from the extraordinary archive of the John Kobal Foundation and demonstrate photography’s decisive role in creating and marketing the stars central to the Hollywood mystique.’

The most amazing thing about the visit was how crowded it was. It made me think. What was the attraction? Was it the quality of the portrait photography? Sadly not. It is the cult of celebrity!! People wanted to see vintage photographs of old movie stars.

The photographs themselves were all about presenting the image that the movie moguls wanted to portray of their stars. They were carefully orchestrated – none were candid or informal. Most had the look of film stills with the stars looking way from the camera or at one another –  only occasionally at the viewer. The exhibition is shown on the National Portrait Gallery website.

The quality of the black and white prints was excellent – a result of the large format camera used to capture them. Many of the prints however had a soft focus feel particularly around the stars faces. All was revealed in an exhibit showing how the blemishes of the stars were removed by retouching the negatives…..photoshop and the airbrush was alive and well even 50 years ago.

My overall impression of the exhibition was one of disappointment. I did not feel that I gained any real insight into the stars – the photographs really just showed what the movie business wanted the viewer to see. On a more positive note it was interesting to look into another genre of photography – even if it is not one I am ever likely to pursue.

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