Early cinematographers, still photographers get their due


Celebrity was a fresh concept at the beginning of the last century, as the movies introduced the world to a new kind of famous person: pretend heroes and ingénues glamorized on the big screen and the pages of movie fan magazines. In the silent era, image became everything.

In his richly illustrated “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography,” David S. Shields examines the groundbreaking work of the early cinematographers and still photographers who created that phenomenon. Shields is both scholarly and deeply passionate about the pictures (some from his own collection), gathering rare images from the sets of epic costume dramas and the kind of celebrity portraiture that would reach its ultimate expression generations later in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.

The once-monumental fame of Clara Bow, Mary Pickford and William S. Hart has faded to obscurity, but the pictures retain a lasting elegance and power. Milton Brown’s portrait of a crouching Lillian Gish in character from 1928’s “The Wind” suggests an entire melodrama in a single frame, as do Ray Smallwood’s stills from the outdoor locations of the violent westerns “Blazing the Trail” and “The Invaders” (both from 1912).


PHOTOS: The glamorous silent film world in “Still”

Hollywood even recruited Edward S. Curtis, famous for his historic portrait series of Native Americans and who became especially valued for his ability to create carefully composed images on location. He soon settled into a studio in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel and was hired by Cecil B. DeMille as co-cinematographer and still photographer for 1923’s “The Ten Commandments.”

D.W. Griffith drafted still photographer Hendrick Sartov into a filmmaker mainly for his lighting mastery, which had the effect of melting away the years on already-sensitive talent. Sartov worked as cinematographer on that era’s “La Boheme” and “The Scarlet Letter” and became Gish’s favorite; she took him with her to MGM in 1925. As Gish understood, a gifted photographer could make or remake a performer’s image: a frustrated Norma Shearer turned to the great glamour portraitist George Hurrell to depict her as an alluring, sexual figure after being typecast as buttoned-up society women.

Some publicity stills from the era were simply lifted directly from the motion picture film stock, but the best were shot independently with still cameras, capturing something of the moment. Shields recounts the making of these essential cultural artifacts with great depth, documenting the rise of a new superpower in the world: the image-makers of Hollywood.

American Silent Motion Picture Photography

David S. Shields
University of Chicago Press, 401 pp; $50