Shooting Star : Group Photographer, 83, Keeps California Smiling

Times Staff Writer

For years, Larry O’Dell has asked people to smile.

And millions of them have.

Since 1929, when he lined up a group of workers behind a post office, O’Dell has photographed virtually every kind of government agency in California, from custodial to gubernatorial staffs. He has chronicled on film the hirings and firings at companies ranging from Pacific Bell to Douglas Aircraft.

He shoots not one person at a time, but dozens--or hundreds; he reckons that millions of people have been framed over the years by his 1898 Voigtlaender lens.


“I’m the only photographer west of the Mississippi they can get to do it,” said O’Dell, 83, of his unusual specialty. “I drove the competition out long ago.”

O’Dell was at it again this week, shuffling members of California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp’s Los Angeles staff along some makeshift bleachers in a Wilshire Boulevard parking lot until he was satisfied with the shot.

“Big smiles now, let me see all your teeth,” said O’Dell, ready to squeeze the bulb of his cumbersome, 1915 Smith-Corona Panview 8X20 camera.

“No, leave them in!” he shouted as he squeezed, using a stock gag that has served him well for the last 56 years.


In the protective shade of his 1976 white Cadillac Eldorado convertible and snappily dressed in a double-breasted navy blue blazer and blue skipper’s cap bearing the insignia of the defunct Hollywood Yacht Club, O’Dell, a former silent film actor, reminisced about his career on both sides of the camera.

Born in Minneapolis, O’Dell came to Hollywood in 1919, where he worked under contract to Cecil B. De Mille in at least 30 silent films, he said. By his own admission, he “stunk” as an actor. His biggest role was that of a German aviator in the World War I film “Wings.”

When he lost a featured role in “The Big Trail” to a young USC football star named Marion Morrison--later known as John (Duke) Wayne--O’Dell decided that he would be better off taking pictures than making them.

“I used to sell the pictures for $1 each,” said O’Dell, who sells the 8-by-20-inch shots to individual employees, and not normally to the agencies themselves. “Now we charge ‘em $9.60. Believe me, I’ve made a few million off of this business.”


Despite his professed riches, he has no plans to retire and turn over the business to his son and assistant, Tom. “My doctor says that I’ll live to 106,” said O’Dell, who smokes two packs of non-filtered cigarettes a day.

The venerable photographer is definitely a traditionalist. He says you can’t beat his 90-year-old lens for clarity, and he traces the demise of Hollywood to the influx of “longhairs.”

And how have his thousands of subjects changed over the last half-century?

“They all look the same to me,” he said.