John Kobal 1940-1991 : An Extraordinary Everyday living

Yoshiko Yap

Archives – Oct 2012

John Kobal, who died 20-one several years ago this month, was a pre-eminent film historian and collector of Hollywood film pictures. The writer of over thirty books on film and film images, he was acknowledged for his innovative and exuberant persona, as well as his voracious know-how of the trivia of movie and images lore. He is credited with fundamentally ‘rediscovering’ quite a few of the fantastic Hollywood Studio photographers – George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Ted Allan, Ernest Bachrach, Ruth Harriet Louise, ER Richee amongst many others – who were used by the film studios to generate the glamorous, legendary portraits of the most famed and powerful 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 forgotten artists with their unique negatives and produce new prints for exhibitions he then mounted around the world at, among many others, Victoria & Albert Museum, London National Portrait Gallery, London Museum of Modern Art, New York National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC and LA County Museum, Los Angeles. These prints, along with the first vintage prints from the studio times, kind the core of the John Kobal Basis Archive that he donated to the foundation prior to his demise in London in October 1991.

‘June Duprez, his princess in ‘The Thief Of Baghdad’, cooked him gourmet foods 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 permit him rest on a sofa, baskets of bouquets at his head, in her lodge suite.’

Kobal was born in May possibly 1940 in Linz, Austria, of a Ruthenian father and an Austrian mother, his primary title getting Ivan Kobaly. He emigrated to Canada with his spouse and children when he was 10. From the 1st he was a passionate filmgoer and one particular of his earliest recollections was sneaking into a Rita Hayworth movie currently being demonstrated to the American profession forces in a corridor future to his grandmother’s home in Salzburg.

Even though he seems to have assimilated really promptly into the everyday living of Ottawa, almost certainly the dislocation of the shift emphasised his inclination to live additional intensely in film than in truth. A adore affair with the motion pictures had begun when Kobal was a boy in Austria and ongoing when his household immigrated to Canada. He later wrote that “Hollywood exerted a highly effective charm on the imagination of a youthful man utilised to residing in emotional isolation.” Together with observing each and every motion picture he could, his passion for amassing was ignited and Kobal purchased (and saved) supporter magazines and started sending absent for the 8 X 10 glossies that were distributed by the studios and delivered into the anxious palms of supporters around the globe. Well-known considering that the earliest days of motion images, these publications and the flood of photographs created by the studios stored favorites in the minds of supporters and titillated motion picture goers, even individuals dwelling in considerably away locations.

He was an actor at faculty, most mentioned according to his personal model for picturesque disasters which surrounded his each individual overall look. Undeterred, at the age of 18 he headed off to New York with the intention of going on stage professionally. Soon later on he arrived in England, which was to keep on being his home for the relaxation of his lifetime. He invested the future four a long time touring the English provinces in various performs paying out his spare time scouring antique marketplaces and 2nd hand bookshops for things of movie memorabilia and film stills.

He constantly carried the image collection with him, often augmenting it when he got the probability. In 1964 he went to New York the place he freelanced for BBC Radio’s ‘Movie Go Round’ programme and later became their US movie correspondent. The American Movie sector was in a time period of major changeover and the Hollywood Studios were being closing down their places of work and discarding previous publicity materials – posters, photos etc. – that couple regarded as of any price at that time.The studio procedure was extensive useless and tv experienced properly drawn audiences absent from film theaters. The nostalgia trend of the toddler boomers was nonetheless a decade off. For the duration of the 1960s 5 of Hollywood’s eight significant studios — MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal and United Artists — were sold off to conglomerates, the gentlemen in fits having very little desire in the background of the firms they were acquiring. A collective madness swept by way of Los Angeles through this interval of consolidation and lots of studios shed treasure troves of publicity and advertising material designed to assist the movies that entertained audiences since the 1920s.

Kobal collected any illustrations or photos he could discover but what had the most resonance for Kobal, having said that, ended up initial portraits, the 11 X 14 inch silver prints that froze in time for him a instant in American cultural daily life when glamour dominated the flicks. They have been a tangible connection to the past and he gobbled up them up wherever he could locate them. When Kobal first started critically analyzing and acquiring Hollywood portraits and stills, this material was regarded very little far more than insignificant Hollywood ephemera. Only a handful of film fanatics, which include Kobal, scrambled and competed to get first studio photos. Kobal did, on the other hand, gather far better than the others, and in the finish employed his amazing selection in the support of restoring the reputations of the photographers who experienced assisted create the stars in the very first put.

For me,” wrote Kobal, “the ‘movie star’ was always the most remarkable point about the motion pictures.” And by film star, Kobal meant the good faces that graced cinema from its beginnings, through movie noir and into the 1950s. Like all lovers, Kobal beloved the flicks, but in the period before online video and DVD there were being couple of options to see previous films. He shared with lovers from the decades just before he was born an insatiable drive to understand as considerably as he could about his favorites and consumed each individual tidbit supplied in admirer magazines and any other advertising materials he could uncover. When Kobal moved to New York in 1964, and afterwards Los Angeles, he was confused by the point that tv showed flicks throughout the day and night, albeit often butchered to slip a two hour film in a ninety minute slot which includes commercials. In this article Kobal was introduced to a lot more of the terrific faces of the earlier, a lot of very long lifeless, retired or now a long time previous their primary. Meeting the stars whose faces flickered on late night television became his holy grail.

‘It was Tallulah Bankhead who unlocked Hollywood for me. A person night she termed George Cukor and said ‘Dahling George…’ and right after they gossiped for good, she remembered why she experienced termed him in the to start with put and claimed, ‘I have this diviihhhne youthful male right here, and he’s likely to Hollywood and he doesn’t know any person and you know everyone and he’s really a most critical youthful gentleman.’ She looked at me to make positive, and then mortified me by telling Cukor that I was broke ‘but presentable, dahling. And he is familiar with almost everything about everybody’s movies’

At the time the doorways of Hollywood ended up open to Kobal, obsessive accumulation grew to become the hallmark of his acquisition of star portraits. He obtained one prints, little collections and when the prospect arose a star’s or photographer’s archives. 
All Hollywood photography fell beneath the area of the studio’s publicity departments and every single photograph taken served, in one way or one more, the advertising of a film or star and, by affiliation, the studio’s manufacturer. As Gloria Swanson instructed Kobal in 1964, “Audiences make stars, both they like you or they really do not.” These illustrations or photos were soon after all an critical forex of Hollywood. The professions of famous figures this sort of as Crawford, Gable and Cooper, Kobal advised “had been built possible by means of pictures and would possibly not have existed without“… Prolonged ahead of the paparazzi snaps, which replaced the portrait in the 1960s as the fan’s most loved automobile of link to stars, studio-managed publicity shots chronicled the lives of stars on monitor and off. Whilst these may well appear to be artificial in contrast to the lively intrusion of the immediate hearth triggers of today’s digital cameras, they recorded an era when admirers looked up to the stars as templates of manners and style.

Studio portraits taken at MGM and Paramount had been readily available in the finest figures as Hollywood’s top rated two studios competed with one another for stars and publicity. Kobal may possibly not have consciously picked MGM as his place of finest fascination, but the combination of availability of images and the coincidence of his relationships with George Hurrell and primarily Clarence Sinclair Bull gave him an unprecedented obtain to MGM content. This resulted in Kobal acquiring a basically encyclopedic assortment of portraits of MGM stars and showcased gamers. There might also have been some thing diverse about MGM images, as longtime studio photographer Bud Graybill implies, “One detail about MGM, however, was that the notion behind the stars was to make them far more glamorous, far more remote, not so obtainable.

As Kobal achieved a person excellent woman after the subsequent from Hollywood’s glory times and assiduously gathered the portraits that aided every turn out to be a star, he began to fully grasp the complexity of not only making, but sustaining, glamour. In a standard Kobal change of phrase he mentioned, “Glamour had been sparks thrown off by the giants in their engage in, and it was individuals electrical flashes that manufactured them fascinating.” Discussing portraiture with Kobal, 1 of people giants, Loretta Youthful, recounted, “We all considered we have been magnificent mainly because by the time they concluded with us we have been attractive.” Youthful was, most likely, currently being unnecessarily modest, but it is true that even the most wonderful actress been given from the arms of her photographer an extra polish and shimmer. “The men and women who have been the source of the sparks” in accordance to Kobal, “could hardly ever be made, but they had been harnessed to melt away as a flame which was controlled by the studio.” 
This did not arise accidentally or haphazardly. “What took place in the galleries” wrote Kobal, “was an amazing matter, a thing that was over and above the ken of the studios and owed practically nothing to contracts, scripts or the publicity department.” Performers worked as tough, or as Kobal observed it, probably even more difficult, in the portrait studio than on the set. “To realize the outcomes of the terrific portraits, it was important for the sitters to get to a point out of have confidence in with the photographer so complete that they would unconsciously expose the incredibly hunger that experienced pushed them to the area the place they now located on their own.

I photographed better than I seemed,” Crawford instructed Kobal, “so it was quick for me…I let myself go just before the camera. I necessarily mean, you just can’t photograph a lifeless cat. You have to supply something.” Greta Garbo, whose languid fashion belies words like “hunger” and “driven”, was, yet, as good a portrait matter as she was a film actress. Kobal would have us have an understanding of that whichever it was that built Garbo Hollywood’s best film star was also operating at complete throttle in the portrait studio. Katharine Hepburn set it succinctly, “If you are in the company of currently being photographed, you ought to like to have your picture taken, in any other case you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s portion of your occupation.”

Like so quite a few stories about John Kobal, the one particular about his noteworthy part as a connoisseur, collector and chronicler of Hollywood photography begins with a film star. Performing as a journalist in 1969, Kobal frequented the set of Myra Breckenridge to interview display legend Mae West. His reporter’s qualifications granted him accessibility to the established and while awaiting summons from Miss West, Kobal had the option to meet customers of the film’s crew. Creating little speak with an on-established photographer, he figured out the man’s title was George Hurrell. This astonished Kobal, for he acknowledged the identify from the credit score marks embossed or stamped on lots of of the Hollywood photos he experienced gathered because childhood. But those photos had been from the 1920s and 1930s, and were photos of the greatest of Hollywood’s stars, Davis, Garbo, Gable, Harlow. Could it be the similar gentleman almost four decades later, nevertheless training his craft on a movie set?

Following this auspicious conference, Kobal and Hurrell forged a friendship, which authorized the younger guy to study from a firsthand supply specifically how Hollywood’s glamour was constructed. While film stars were catnip to Kobal, following conference Hurrell he grew to become virtually as voracious in locating and interviewing Hollywood photographers. By the 1970s a greater part of the photographers who experienced worked in the twenties and thirties, like their subjects, ended up retired and a handful of experienced died. What designed Kobal’s undertaking even more complex was the difficulty of photographer’s credit that surrounded studio photography.

When numerous portraits were being embossed or stamped with the photographer’s identify, scene-stills had been nearly never credited. Gradually, and later on frantically, Kobal set about trying to explore just who experienced taken what image. Kobal did not meet up with absolutely everyone who shot portraits and stills in Hollywood but he was the initial who tried using to make sense of their crucial contribution to film-land heritage. In his quest to learn the whereabouts of the surviving stillsmen Kobal came to know, alongside with Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Robert Coburn, William Walling, Ted Allan, John Engstead and Clarence Sinclair Bull.

Just about every would share his reminiscences and print from his negatives. In return Kobal started off what turned his most crucial work — publishing the anthologies of the photographers’ work that resuscitated neglected careers. Perform that is probably the most excellent record offered of the background of Hollywood’s initial fifty decades. 

Kobal identified the crucial role studio photographers experienced in developing the images of the stars and chronicled this previously overlooked aspect of movie history in a succession of textbooks beginning with Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Photographs of Stars 1926-1949 revealed in 1976. His most critical get the job done, The Art of the Wonderful Hollywood Portrait Photographers (1980), was the very first significant systematic review of the style and had the added reward of getting both of those magnificently illustrated and sumptuously manufactured. In that reserve he charted the terrain of Hollywood glamour and furnished glimpses of the (primarily) women who sat prior to the cameras and the workings of the (largely) guys who designed the illusions. In complete Kobal authored, co-authored or edited 30-three books, numerous illustrated from his personal holdings.

Kobal was the first to organize museum exhibits devoted to Hollywood portraiture. His inaugural effort and hard work was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1974, a demonstrate he described as “the 1st exhibition of the Hollywood team.” This was adopted by shows he mounted at The Museum of Modern-day Art (New York), as effectively as the Nationwide Portrait Galleries in Washington and London. The very first museum exhibition devoted to the vocation of one particular Hollywood photographer was The Guy Who Shot Garbo, a monographic exhibition on Clarence Sinclair Bull that opened at the Countrywide Portrait Gallery (London) in 1989. It is apt that Bull’s profession need to be the very first therefore to be explored since no photographer shot as a lot of popular Hollywood faces. Katharine Hepburn wrote the foreword to the accompanying eponymously titled guide, The Person Who Shot Garbo. She referred to as Bull, “one of the greats” and ended her comments with: “Clarence Bull! And the National Portrait Gallery! WOW!”

Bull’s tenure at MGM, 1924-1961, matched the period of time now outlined by the outdated chestnut, Hollywood’s Golden Age. There is no concern that it was the golden age of Hollywood portraiture. The year Bull retired, 1961, a new sort of pictures was beginning to creep into the mainstream of studio movie promotion and the Hollywood push. The candid would quickly replace the portrait as the type of image admirers most wanted to see. Publications started publishing snaps of Elizabeth Taylor amongst planes and yachts, and Greta Garbo as witnessed beneath a floppy hat via a telephoto lens. Is it a coincidence that Bull still left MGM the year Fellini’s La Dolce Vita released to the world the character Paparazzo, and the paparazzi ended up born?

Kobal regarded this change in perspective toward Hollywood images and largely minimal his accumulating to work created before 1960. He recognized the yrs 1925-1940 as the scope of his guide The Artwork of the Excellent Hollywood Photographers and argued that it is from those many years that the best improvements took put. “After 1939,” wrote Kobal “…[the] results of great images nonetheless lingered on, even as movie bought a lot quicker, lenses sharper, cameras much more manageable, and negatives scaled-down, but by the beginning of the 1940s, substantially of the excellent perform was above.” In before guides Kobal experienced chronicled Hollywood photography from the 1940s and 1950s, such as the groundbreaking use of colour, but following that decade he was largely silent. The paparazzi held no attract in the Hollywood fantasy so perfectly described by Kobal. His ebullient character – virtually anyone appreciated him – allowed Kobal to grow to be the impresario of the historical past of Hollywood photography.

‘To me John was the Claude Levi-Strauss of glamour. He meticulously gathered its thousand-and-a single tales and pictures, and laboriously erected out of them cathedrals entire of mild and lifestyle and wisdom and humanity.‘ (Donald Lyons, Movie Comment)


Movie is the only factor of any resourceful worthy of that this century has generated. If not, it is continue to offering the most fun’ (John Kobal)

The earlier mentioned biography of John Kobal was extracted generally from the foreword to Glamour of the Gods :photos from the John Kobal Foundation (Steidl , 2008) by Robert Dance © Robert Dance and utilised below with his authorization.

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