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Jean HarlowMonday, 8.15.05: Hollywood Portraits

I've jumped to Hollywood.

With the Paul Wall collection ready to go out the door this morning, we are nibbling at the dealer's hook about selling our collection of Hollywood studio portraits. This means that I spent the weekend taking inventory -- and I'm not quite done.

There was a time when the movie studios hired the best photographers to do portraits of their actors: The Golden Age of Hollywood Glamour, 1925-1940. These cool, sculptural, sexy portraits contributed to Hollywood romanticism. Forget realism.

Interesting that these romantic, larger-than-life portraits should emerge during the Great Depression. You can make a strong argument that movies are the true religion in United States, Hollywood our Mecca, the stars our saints, who we look to for guidance in our pallid lives. During the Depression, the movie moguls knew they'd lose their audiences if they portrayed the gritty and despairing realities.

American movies had always manufactured entertainment... but not since their beginnings, and never again, had they achieved so meaningful a purpose: to provide hope through identification. The product had not become more socially significant, but the man in the street took his lead from the hero on the screen. For years the audience had mindlessly followed the adventures and copied the look; now they copied the attitude... The stars were not the fantasies they were subsequently made out to be, but their great faces, casting their glamour from gigantic billboards across the nation, burned as beacons, capable of guiding people to the spirit within themselves. [John Kobal, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers]

Jim, of course, made his study of these during the 1990s and we have a shelf full of books to prove it. I watched them coming through the door, but only learned what Jim told me. Now it's my turn to be more systematic about learning what we have and what it means. At the moment, it feels like much more fun than the boxes of medical history books I'm also supposed to be "curating."

 

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