For photographer Karl Gernot Kuehn, pinpointing the genesis of his "Classic Actresses" series is quite simple. It came about when he met--and became smitten with--Lillian Gish.
For Holly Wright, who grew up in the "business" as the daughter of actors John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan, her fascination with the images of acting came "quite naturally."
On Saturday, Kuehn, a Los Angeles film editor, and Wright, a former Laguna College of Art instructor, will unveil their joint photographic exhibit--an examination of longtime noted actresses--at the BC Space Gallery in Laguna Beach.
Kuehn's encounter with Gish came seven years ago in Los Angeles, when he attended a screening of Gish's 1928 silent film "The Wind."
"She was a revelation. Even today, she has the same radiance, the same intensity and beauty," Kuehn said. "I wanted to capture her and her whole generation (for the still camera), not as figures of the past but as they are today."
So five years ago, Kuehn embarked on his quest to photograph not only Gish but also other legendary--and equally formidable--actresses in their 80s and 90s, such as Helen Hayes, Judith Anderson and Lynn Fontanne.
His portraits of these stars, combined with stage and screen actresses whose names mean little or nothing to a younger generation, make up Kuehn's "Classic Actresses," a gently nostalgic but unwavering observation of past glory and physical erosion.
"To me, they are all great survivors, a direct link to one of the most fascinating eras, each having reached a kind of immortality. But they are a rapidly vanishing group," said Kuehn, 45, whose BC Space exhibition--running through May 10--is the first California showing of his actress series.
Gaining entry into the tightly guarded world of these actresses at first proved frustrating to Kuehn, who was met with numerous unanswered letters or last-minute canceled appointments.
Also, many of the era's most famed survivors had died, including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and, more recently, Louise Brooks. While others, such as the ultra-reclusive Greta Garbo, were regarded as totally unapproachable.
Yet, Kuehn said, he had relatively few rejections, finding that once he started to photograph the series--beginning with Cathleen Nesbitt and Lynn Fontanne--"things began to snowball. I was given a lot of help in contacting the others."
Still, the project was a daunting one for Kuehn, who was well aware of the fierce reputations of many of these doyenne stars. "I'm talking about dealing with people who are such perfectionists, such powerful personalities. It was an intimidating situation, just thinking about it," he said.
"There was no time for real preparation. I went in cold, shot real fast, used whatever backgrounds I could find and got out of there, doing all the real touches in the darkroom."
The results, as shown in the 18 black-and-white portraits in the BC Space exhibition, are stunning, both as meticulously crafted works and as star-power evocation:
Fontanne and Nesbitt, with their patrician profiles and effortless elegance. Helen Hayes, affecting an imperious posture, every inch the dowager-empress. The startling youthfulness still found in 1930s Oscar winner Luise Rainer and 1920s star Colleen Moore. The staring, enormously frail creature that is now Billie Dove, the one-time Ziegfeld and silent-screen beauty.
But the most dramatic portraits easily belong to those of Judith Anderson and Lillian Gish--each caught by Kuehn's camera as if in mid-memory, each evoking an unmistakable sense of being, not of posing.
Indeed, Kuehn said, he found his encounters with Gish, Anderson and Fontanne the best--in each case, he was treated to long conversations over tea and sandwiches and invited back for another sitting. "They were very warm, wholly without pretense, despite all their grande-dame reputation," he said.
Kuehn isn't finished with his "Classic Actresses" project, although he now has 33 portraits (others include Elisabeth Bergner, Florence Eldridge, Leatrice Joy and Blanche Sweet), and he is working on other major projects (including his "Metropolis" photographs of Los Angeles, included in a group show April 29-June 1 at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery.
However, time is running out.
"There are so few left. Fontanne died (in 1983) not long after the second sitting. She was a remarkable person, so witty and kind, extraordinarily serene, I felt, about her own mortality," remembered Kuehn.
"But I told her I had never seen her or her husband (Alfred Lunt) on the stage or in any other medium. Suddenly, she seemed very still. Very sad. She told me what a shame because I never saw how good she was."
Holly Wright herself had a brief stint as an actress 25 years ago in such television series as "Gunsmoke," "Dr. Kildare" and "Breaking Point" ("mostly the damsel-in-distress roles," as she described it).
Her "Moving Pictures" photographic show at the BC Space Gallery deals with the career and off-screen personality of one veteran actress--her mother, Jeanette Nolan, whose career dates back to radio's golden age and whose roles have ranged from Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' "Macbeth" film to a part in television's "Dirty Sally" frontier series.
(Also at the BC Space is Wright's 44-foot-long "Audience," a room-size montage depicting 28 members of a theater audience, including McIntire and Nolan.)
"My particular interest is role playing and self-images, what is real and what is authentic faking," Wright said by phone from Charlottesville, Va., where she and her husband--the award-winning poet Charles Wright--are on the University of Virginia faculty.
Her photographic career started in the early 1970s, after she and Charles, then a UC Irvine professor, had settled in Laguna Beach (they have a son, Luke).
"I came to realize I was never really happy in front of the camera. I love being behind the camera, where each production, so to speak, is my own creation from beginning to end," said Holly Wright, 44, who earned a UCLA degree in English after quitting acting, and who later took graduate studies in photography at the University of Iowa.
Her photography is highly personal and psychologically probing, with projects that have included a modern-dress version of biblical characters and a series of life-size portraits of persons lying as if in a coffin. In addition to Orange County group and one-woman exhibitions, Wright's works have also been seen in Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City.
In the "Moving Pictures" series on her mother, Wright uses then-and-now depictions of Nolan:
--The "then" are black-and-white studio stills, including Nolan as an ingenue in 1933, as a member of Richard Boone's television repertory in 1963 and as television's "Dirty Sally" in 1974.
--The "now" are color shots of Nolan--in situations roughly similar to the publicity stills, from gun-toting to cooking. These off-screen photographs were taken in 1984 by Wright at the family's rustic retreat in Montana.
"I have to be frank--I wasn't too aware of what my daughter's conception was of this series. I just did what she told me," said Nolan, 74, during a visit to the BC Space Gallery. She added with parental pride, "She's a marvelously gifted artist."
The photographs display some of Nolan's versatility as an actress and her seemingly boundless personal vivacity. (Not shown among the publicity shots is her Lady Macbeth film role of 1948 or her appearances with husband McIntire in television's "The Virginian" and "Wagon Train" series of the 1960s.)
Wright said: "What's so fascinating about professionals like Mama is that the two images overlap--the person on the screen and the person at home. In a sense, there is no line between the two.
"In either case, Mama is utterly natural, totally convincing in whatever feelings she chooses to project. That is what comes across, I believe, in this whole show."