June 19, 2024


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John Kobal 1940-1991 : An Extraordinary Life

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Archives – Oct 2012

John Kobal, who died twenty-a single years in the past this thirty day period, was a pre-eminent film historian and collector of Hollywood film photography. The writer of about 30 guides on film and movie pictures, he was identified for his resourceful and exuberant individuality, as effectively as his voracious understanding of the trivia of film and pictures lore. He is credited with effectively ‘rediscovering’ several of the wonderful Hollywood Studio photographers – George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Ted Allan, Ernest Bachrach, Ruth Harriet Louise, ER Richee amongst others – who have been utilized by the motion picture studios to produce the glamorous, iconic portraits of the most popular and persuasive stars of the day that now epitomise the Golden Age of Hollywood. Kobal’s mission in the 1970’s and 80’s was to reunite these overlooked artists with their first negatives and deliver new prints for exhibitions he then mounted around the globe at, among many others, Victoria & Albert Museum, London Countrywide Portrait Gallery, London Museum of Modern-day Artwork, New York Nationwide Portrait Gallery, Washington DC and LA County Museum, Los Angeles. These prints, alongside with the initial classic prints from the studio days, kind the core of the John Kobal Basis Archive that he donated to the foundation prior to his demise in London in Oct 1991.

‘June Duprez, his princess in ‘The Thief Of Baghdad’, cooked him gourmet meals Olga Baclanova fed him caviare. Joan Crawford sang to him, Miriam Hopkins recited Byron’s ‘The Prisoner Of Chillon’, Tallulah Bankhead taught him to smoke and Marlene Dietrich enable him rest on a sofa, baskets of bouquets at his head, in her hotel suite.’

Kobal was born in May 1940 in Linz, Austria, of a Ruthenian father and an Austrian mom, his unique name currently being Ivan Kobaly. He emigrated to Canada with his household when he was 10. From the initial he was a passionate filmgoer and a person of his earliest memories was sneaking into a Rita Hayworth film being shown to the American profession forces in a corridor up coming to his grandmother’s residence in Salzburg.

However he looks to have assimilated extremely swiftly into the lifestyle of Ottawa, almost certainly the dislocation of the transfer emphasised his tendency to are living a lot more intensely in film than in truth. A like affair with the flicks had started when Kobal was a boy in Austria and continued when his family members immigrated to Canada. He afterwards wrote that “Hollywood exerted a effective allure on the creativity of a young guy utilised to residing in psychological isolation.” Alongside with looking at each individual motion picture he could, his enthusiasm for gathering was ignited and Kobal bought (and saved) admirer magazines and commenced sending away for the 8 X 10 glossies that had been dispersed by the studios and delivered into the anxious hands of lovers around the globe. Well known since the earliest days of movement pictures, these magazines and the flood of photographs developed by the studios kept favorites in the minds of supporters and titillated movie goers, even people living in considerably absent places.

He was an actor at college, most pointed out in accordance to his own edition for picturesque disasters which surrounded his each physical appearance. Undeterred, at the age of 18 he headed off to New York with the intention of likely on stage professionally. Soon later on he arrived in England, which was to continue to be his household for the rest of his lifetime. He invested the future 4 several years touring the English provinces in many performs paying his spare time scouring antique marketplaces and next hand bookshops for products of film memorabilia and film stills.

He always carried the image selection with him, always augmenting it when he got the prospect. In 1964 he went to New York the place he freelanced for BBC Radio’s ‘Movie Go Round’ programme and afterwards became their US movie correspondent. The American Film sector was in a period of time of key transition and the Hollywood Studios ended up closing down their offices and discarding previous publicity materials – posters, shots etcetera. – that several regarded as of any price at that time.The studio procedure was lengthy lifeless and tv experienced properly drawn audiences absent from film theaters. The nostalgia trend of the newborn boomers was however a 10 years off. All through the 1960s five of Hollywood’s eight main studios — MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Common and United Artists — had been offered off to conglomerates, the guys in fits obtaining minimal desire in the historical past of the organizations they have been obtaining. A collective insanity swept via Los Angeles through this period of consolidation and lots of studios get rid of treasure troves of publicity and advertising substance developed to guidance the movies that entertained audiences considering that the 1920s.

Kobal collected any images he could obtain but what experienced the most resonance for Kobal, even so, were unique portraits, the 11 X 14 inch silver prints that froze in time for him a second in American cultural lifestyle when glamour dominated the videos. They ended up a tangible link to the previous and he gobbled up them up wherever he could discover them. When Kobal 1st started very seriously examining and obtaining Hollywood portraits and stills, this materials was thought of nothing a lot more than insignificant Hollywood ephemera. Only a several film lovers, like Kobal, scrambled and competed to purchase authentic studio images. Kobal did, nevertheless, obtain better than the others, and in the conclude applied his amazing assortment in the assistance of restoring the reputations of the photographers who had served make the stars in the very first place.

For me,” wrote Kobal, “the ‘movie star’ was often the most outstanding matter about the motion pictures.” And by motion picture star, Kobal meant the great faces that graced cinema from its beginnings, by movie noir and into the 1950s. Like all admirers, Kobal liked the films, but in the interval in advance of online video and DVD there were being number of opportunities to see old films. He shared with lovers from the decades ahead of he was born an insatiable desire to understand as much as he could about his favorites and consumed every tidbit supplied in supporter publications and any other marketing substance he could find. When Kobal moved to New York in 1964, and later on Los Angeles, he was confused by the reality that tv showed flicks throughout the day and night, albeit generally butchered to slip a two hour film in a ninety moment slot which include commercials. Right here Kobal was released to more of the great faces of the past, quite a few extensive lifeless, retired or now decades past their key. Conference the stars whose faces flickered on late evening television turned his holy grail.

‘It was Tallulah Bankhead who unlocked Hollywood for me. One evening she identified as George Cukor and reported ‘Dahling George…’ and soon after they gossiped forever, she remembered why she experienced known as him in the 1st area and stated, ‘I have this diviihhhne young guy right here, and he’s going to Hollywood and he does not know anybody and you know every person and he’s truly a most really serious younger guy.’ She appeared at me to make confident, and then mortified me by telling Cukor that I was broke ‘but presentable, dahling. And he knows every thing about everybody’s movies’

The moment the doors of Hollywood had been open to Kobal, obsessive accumulation grew to become the hallmark of his acquisition of star portraits. He obtained one prints, compact collections and when the opportunity arose a star’s or photographer’s archives. 
All Hollywood images fell below the domain of the studio’s publicity departments and every photograph taken served, in a person way or yet another, the advertising of a movie or star and, by association, the studio’s model. As Gloria Swanson instructed Kobal in 1964, “Audiences make stars, possibly they like you or they really don’t.” These photographs ended up just after all an crucial currency of Hollywood. The occupations of legendary figures such as Crawford, Gable and Cooper, Kobal suggested “were being designed feasible through pictures and would likely not have existed with out“… Long before the paparazzi snaps, which replaced the portrait in the 1960s as the fan’s favourite car of connection to stars, studio-managed publicity pics chronicled the lives of stars on monitor and off. Although these may well feel artificial in contrast to the energetic intrusion of the swift hearth triggers of today’s digital cameras, they recorded an period when fans appeared up to the stars as templates of manners and style.

Studio portraits taken at MGM and Paramount were being obtainable in the greatest numbers as Hollywood’s leading two studios competed with one a further for stars and publicity. Kobal may well not have consciously chosen MGM as his spot of biggest desire, but the blend of availability of visuals and the coincidence of his relationships with George Hurrell and primarily Clarence Sinclair Bull gave him an unparalleled access to MGM content. This resulted in Kobal acquiring a basically encyclopedic assortment of portraits of MGM stars and highlighted gamers. There might also have been one thing diverse about MGM pictures, as longtime studio photographer Bud Graybill implies, “One particular matter about MGM, even though, was that the strategy at the rear of the stars was to make them far more glamorous, more remote, not so accessible.

As Kobal achieved 1 excellent girl just after the subsequent from Hollywood’s glory times and assiduously collected the portraits that aided just about every turn into a star, he started to have an understanding of the complexity of not only generating, but sustaining, glamour. In a normal Kobal transform of phrase he pointed out, “Glamour had been sparks thrown off by the giants in their participate in, and it was these electrical flashes that created them interesting.” Talking about portraiture with Kobal, 1 of people giants, Loretta Young, recounted, “We all considered we have been beautiful because by the time they finished with us we ended up attractive.” Youthful was, probably, currently being unnecessarily modest, but it is real that even the most stunning actress been given from the fingers of her photographer an extra polish and shimmer. “The folks who were being the supply of the sparks” in accordance to Kobal, “could never be made, but they had been harnessed to burn off as a flame which was managed by the studio.” 
This did not occur accidentally or haphazardly. “What took place in the galleries” wrote Kobal, “was an amazing factor, anything that was over and above the ken of the studios and owed very little to contracts, scripts or the publicity division.” Performers worked as tricky, or as Kobal observed it, probably even more difficult, in the portrait studio than on the set. “To obtain the outcomes of the wonderful portraits, it was required for the sitters to get to a state of rely on with the photographer so full that they would unconsciously expose the quite hunger that experienced driven them to the area where they now found by themselves.

I photographed superior than I appeared,” Crawford instructed Kobal, “so it was easy for me…I allow myself go right before the digital camera. I mean, you can’t photograph a useless cat. You have to give a thing.” Greta Garbo, whose languid design and style belies words and phrases like “hunger” and “driven”, was, nevertheless, as fantastic a portrait subject matter as she was a film actress. Kobal would have us have an understanding of that what ever it was that manufactured Garbo Hollywood’s greatest film star was also performing at whole throttle in the portrait studio. Katharine Hepburn set it succinctly, “If you are in the organization of getting photographed, you ought to like to have your photograph taken, if not you shouldn’t be accomplishing it. It is part of your work.”

Like so a lot of tales about John Kobal, the 1 about his notable job as a connoisseur, collector and chronicler of Hollywood images begins with a motion picture star. Performing as a journalist in 1969, Kobal visited the set of Myra Breckenridge to job interview monitor legend Mae West. His reporter’s qualifications granted him access to the established and though awaiting summons from Skip West, Kobal had the chance to satisfy customers of the film’s crew. Making compact talk with an on-established photographer, he learned the man’s identify was George Hurrell. This astonished Kobal, for he acknowledged the title from the credit history marks embossed or stamped on numerous of the Hollywood pictures he experienced collected considering that childhood. But those people images were from the 1920s and 1930s, and had been pictures of the best of Hollywood’s stars, Davis, Garbo, Gable, Harlow. Could it be the exact same male just about four a long time later, even now training his craft on a motion picture set?

Following this auspicious conference, Kobal and Hurrell forged a friendship, which allowed the youthful male to understand from a firsthand resource precisely how Hollywood’s glamour was manufactured. While film stars have been catnip to Kobal, immediately after meeting Hurrell he grew to become just about as voracious in finding and interviewing Hollywood photographers. By the 1970s a bulk of the photographers who had labored in the twenties and thirties, like their topics, had been retired and a handful of experienced died. What created Kobal’s endeavor even extra sophisticated was the situation of photographer’s credit that surrounded studio photography.

While several portraits were being embossed or stamped with the photographer’s title, scene-stills were practically under no circumstances credited. Slowly but surely, and later frantically, Kobal established about trying to learn just who experienced taken what photo. Kobal did not fulfill everybody who shot portraits and stills in Hollywood but he was the first who experimented with to make sense of their essential contribution to movie-land record. In his quest to uncover the whereabouts of the surviving stillsmen Kobal arrived to know, together with Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Robert Coburn, William Walling, Ted Allan, John Engstead and Clarence Sinclair Bull.

Each individual would share his memories and print from his negatives. In return Kobal started off what grew to become his most significant do the job — publishing the anthologies of the photographers’ get the job done that resuscitated neglected occupations. Operate that is most likely the most perfect history out there of the background of Hollywood’s 1st fifty decades. 

Kobal regarded the essential position studio photographers experienced in establishing the pictures of the stars and chronicled this formerly disregarded factor of film record in a succession of books beginning with Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Pics of Stars 1926-1949 released in 1976. His most crucial operate, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers (1980), was the initial severe systematic review of the genre and experienced the included reward of getting both equally magnificently illustrated and sumptuously developed. In that e book he charted the terrain of Hollywood glamour and delivered glimpses of the (largely) women who sat in advance of the cameras and the workings of the (largely) gentlemen who designed the illusions. In whole Kobal authored, co-authored or edited thirty-a few guides, quite a few illustrated from his individual holdings.

Kobal was the 1st to organize museum exhibits devoted to Hollywood portraiture. His inaugural work was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1974, a show he described as “the very first exhibition of the Hollywood group.” This was adopted by displays he mounted at The Museum of Fashionable Art (New York), as nicely as the Countrywide Portrait Galleries in Washington and London. The very first museum exhibition devoted to the career of a person Hollywood photographer was The Person Who Shot Garbo, a monographic exhibition on Clarence Sinclair Bull that opened at the National Portrait Gallery (London) in 1989. It is apt that Bull’s job need to be the 1st therefore to be explored due to the fact no photographer shot as quite a few renowned Hollywood faces. Katharine Hepburn wrote the foreword to the accompanying eponymously titled reserve, The Male Who Shot Garbo. She named Bull, “one of the greats” and ended her comments with: “Clarence Bull! And the Countrywide Portrait Gallery! WOW!”

Bull’s tenure at MGM, 1924-1961, matched the interval now outlined by the old chestnut, Hollywood’s Golden Age. There is no issue that it was the golden age of Hollywood portraiture. The year Bull retired, 1961, a new kind of photography was commencing to creep into the mainstream of studio film advertising and the Hollywood push. The candid would soon swap the portrait as the variety of impression admirers most preferred to see. Publications commenced publishing snaps of Elizabeth Taylor involving planes and yachts, and Greta Garbo as noticed beneath a floppy hat by means of a telephoto lens. Is it a coincidence that Bull remaining MGM the yr Fellini’s La Dolce Vita launched to the planet the character Paparazzo, and the paparazzi have been born?

Kobal identified this shift in angle toward Hollywood photography and mainly confined his amassing to get the job done designed in advance of 1960. He recognized the decades 1925-1940 as the scope of his e book The Art of the Great Hollywood Photographers and argued that it is from all those years that the greatest improvements took place. “After 1939,” wrote Kobal “…[the] outcomes of wonderful photography still lingered on, even as movie obtained more quickly, lenses sharper, cameras additional manageable, and negatives smaller, but by the commencing of the 1940s, substantially of the terrific do the job was more than.” In previously textbooks Kobal experienced chronicled Hollywood photography from the 1940s and 1950s, including the revolutionary use of shade, but immediately after that ten years he was largely silent. The paparazzi held no allure in the Hollywood fantasy so flawlessly described by Kobal. His ebullient character – virtually anyone favored him – permitted Kobal to develop into the impresario of the historical past of Hollywood photography.

‘To me John was the Claude Levi-Strauss of glamour. He meticulously collected its thousand-and-a person tales and photographs, and laboriously erected out of them cathedrals whole of gentle and everyday living and wisdom and humanity.‘ (Donald Lyons, Film Remark)


Movie is the only matter of any imaginative worth that this century has produced. If not, it is even now offering the most fun’ (John Kobal)

The earlier mentioned biography of John Kobal was extracted generally from the foreword to Glamour of the Gods :images from the John Kobal Basis (Steidl , 2008) by Robert Dance © Robert Dance and utilised listed here with his permission.

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