A couple of startling revelations immediately spring from David S. Shields’ luminous and entertaining coffee-table volume “Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography” (University of Chicago Press, $50).
One is that more that 80 percent of silent film footage shot between 1908 and 1928 no longer exists – falling prey to disintegration, disaster, neglect, age and the combustibility of nitrite film stock. The other is that an amazing aesthetic symbiosis existed between still photography and the earliest days of moving pictures.
Still photographs in the form of star portraiture and scene stills were vital early on in capturing and selling the allure of silent motion pictures to the hungry public. So in the early 20th century, skilled photographers such as Jack Freulich, Albert Witzel, W.F. Seely and scores of others migrated to Hollywood to fill a growing need among newspapers, fan magazines and studio publicity mills for artful and sensational images of favorite stars and films.
Shields, a letters professor at the University of South Carolina, has dug diligently through archives, libraries and institutions around the country and unearthed a wealth of lavish images (often the only images surviving from certain films) and in the process sheds light on the crucial part still photography played in creating the early mythology of movie glamour. Devising sultry poses that became signature looks for many early stars and starlets, capturing scenes of opulent productions and spectacular action on screen, these still photographers virtually invented the publicity art form that still drives much of Hollywood’s marketing machinery.
Shields’ hardback book collects more than 150 lush black-and-white photographs (featuring iconic images of Jeanne Eagels, Theda Bara, Lew Cody and Louise Lovely and others), the work of some 60 camera artists (Alvin Langdon Coburn and George Hurrell are among the notables), and supports the art with a detailed history of studio photography and how it influenced the aesthetic of top motion picture cameramen.
Both scholarly and entertaining, “Still” offers a thorough and loving portrait of how Hollywood came to define beauty in the era before movies could talk and when a picture was, indeed, worth a thousand words.
- Dennis King