Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits

Me with a photo of Jean Harlow
by George Hurrell, 1933

This past weekend I went to see Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, an exhibit that I've been looking forward to for months. It showcases Hollywood portraiture from the industry's Golden Age, the period from 1920 to 1960. The exhibition is drawn from the archive of the John Kobal Foundation and features over 70 photographs, most of which are vintage prints displayed in the UK for the first time. The collection is exhibited in the four rooms of the Porter Gallery and are divided per decade. Many of the greatest stars of the era are featured in these exquisite portraits that transformed the actors and actresses into international style icons. We not only get to see the iconic portraits but also learn about the studio photographers behind them. Their invaluable contribution to the mythos of the stars, I feel, is often overlooked. The artistry of these Hollywood photographers really is breathtaking. It is such a pity that the art of Hollywood portrait and still photography has largely been lost along the years.

Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky in a still for The Magic Flame
by Kenneth Alexander, 1927

Portraits of several of my favourite stars are showcased, including Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, Clara Bow, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks and Carole Lombard. The images themselves are not rare, per se, and I had seen the majority of them before. But the difference between studying an original vintage print up close and in person than looking at the photo in a book or on computer screen is massive, needless to say. I also came across intriguing photographs that I had never seen before, like the gorgeous still from The Magic Flame by Kenneth Alexander (above).

Press room at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
by unidentified photographer

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibit are the behind the scenes images. Many of them are not on the walls but tucked in cabinets, such as a photograph of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne that has been marked up for retouching. One photo shows Janis Carter being photographed with six different people working around her to create an image of goddess-like perfection. There are also unretouched portraits of Joan Crawford that show her cute, natural freckles, and the retouched version for comparison.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits runs at the National Portrait Gallery until October 23 and is well worth a look if you happen to be around London! Further details available at the website.


  1. OHHH, WOW,

  2. Fascinating!! I am thrilled that you were able to get to the National Portrait Gallery for this!! I am, of course, as usual, HIGHLY jealous but SO HAPPY to live vicariously through your blog!

  3. that is my favourite portrait of Jean, too. Wonderful! Two gorgeous gals side by side!

  4. 1. Great new look!

    2. Which Lombard portrait was used? Just curious.

  5. TheBlackPinafore - Thank you! I'm happy to hear you like it! :)

    kittypackard - Hee! That's what I'm here for. You should most definitely come around to London again sometime soon!

    BaronessVonVintage - Aww, you're too kind! It is one of my favourites of her too. Love her collaborations with Hurrell!

    VP81955 - Many thanks! The photo they used of Carole is by William Thomas, circa 1929. I hope that is of any help!