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A photographer's memories



An intriguing image of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at a Hollywood movie premiere in 1936, from the Life magazine gallery of photographs (and doesn't Gable's 'I don't care' pose eerily predict Robert Mitchum a decade later?). Today's topic is on the man who took that image, one of the top photographers of his time, Carl Mydans.



Mydans was the magazine's first Hollywood photographer, but his background was altogether different from those who took stills for movie studios. He had just worked with the Department of the Interior's Resettlement Administration, taking images of a world far removed from the film capital (the photo was taken in northeast Alabama)...



...and not that far from the U.S. Capitol (1935 pictures of Washington slums):



The naturalism of such images caused trepidation among many in the film industry when Mydans arrived, with fear the veneer of glamour that was so crucial to Hollywood might be diminished in the pages of this new, hugely popular magazine. As Mydans explained in a 1992 interview:

In those days when they finished shooting a scene, someone would shout, ‘Stills!’ and the studio still photographer would come with his 8 x 10 inch camera on a big wooden tripod, and he’d make a picture on a big negative and a very sharp contact print from it. I did not take pictures of these carefully produced, frozen scenes. I took pictures behind the production with my little 35-millimeter Contax, and that worried them. Word spread that this new man from Life has been sent out from New York to destroy the Hollywood illusions their papier-mâché scenes were creating.

There was a hostility to me on many of the lots. The word went out also that I was breaking the rules by making pictures without joining the union. I told New York about this, and they said, “Join the union.” Some friends on the Paramount lot took me aside and said, “Look, Carl, you can't join the union until the books open.”

I said, “The law says that the books must open once a year, so sometime I will have the chance to apply to join.”

Another friend took me aside and said, “Let me tell you something. The books do open once a year, but they open in somebody's basement, somewhere in Hollywood. Try to find out where.”

Finally this was ironed out with an understanding. The union agreed to let
Life make pictures on studio lots, provided a union man was present. He might sit in the corner and smoke a cigar and read a newspaper, just so long as we paid for his presence. That rule began with me, and it's still the same rule today.

Lombard understandably backed the studio photographers, whom she had forged close professional ties with:

The first time I went to photograph Carole Lombard, she said, “I hope you understand my rule here. If anybody photographs me, all pictures must be shown to me. I will decide what can be used, and those pictures that I do not want used, I will tear the corners off.”

I brought her my first batch of pictures. She received me rather coldly, and she sat with the pictures and looked at them. Then without raising her head to me, she tore the four corners off of each print. I went out of her studio office feeling awful. But some weeks later, I was invited to come back and photograph her again. I don't know what went on behind the scenes, but she received me very nicely. I photographed her, and I brought back to her all the prints that I made. And she okayed all of them.”


Here are a few of the prints she must have okayed -- from the set of "Swing High, Swing Low," taken in January 1937:










Why do I sense that seconds after that last one was taken, Carole gleefully said to the guys, "Made you look!"?

Some really nice photos of Lombard in the filmmaking process, courtesy of Mydans. You can find many of these images -- and purchase framed, full-sized copies of them -- at http://life.time.com.

Mydans continued with his excellent photo work for Life, traveling around the world. January 1942, the month Lombard died, Mydans and his wife were captured in Manila by Japanese troops, and were prisoners of war for two years until their release in a prisoner exchange program. Mydans returned to cover the fighting for Life, gaining renown for this photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in early 1945, making good on his promise to return...



...and later that year, an image Lombard would have savored to see, the Japanese surrender:



He continued working for Life after the war, and his most notable photos included Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife campaigning in Boston in 1958...



...and of commuters on a train from Grand Central Station reading the news about Kennedy's assassination five years later:



Mydans, born in 1907, continued working after Life expired in 1972, working for its sister publication, Time, into the 1980s. He considered himself as much a journalist as a photographer, regularly taking notes of his assignments in notebooks he kept for many years. He later had this to say about his craft:

"Most photographers remember very nearly every picture they have taken. Some, who like myself have made perhaps half a million, may remember all of them. And if a picture of theirs appears somewhere later, over the years, they will spot it immediately and, like a parent unexpectedly seeing the face of a son or daughter in a crowd, may hold it in view for a moment with the feeling that it is something profoundly theirs. In fact, they may even recognize some pictures as their own that they have never seen, because the photojournalists in the field often ship their film to their home offices unprocessed and do not have a chance to see those pictures that are not published. Their editors, always pressed for time, have creamed off what they think is the best of the take and sent the rest to the files where they may languish for years.

"Still during that instant of seeing the subject through the viewfinder there is a remarkable imprinting on his memory. Once a photographer sees and captures an image through his camera it becomes his for his lifetime."


Mydans died in August 2004 at age 97.
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