STANLEY KUBRIK – A FILMMAKER ROOTED IN PHOTOGRAPHY

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Copacabana Girls in their dressing room, 1948

Out of all the boroughs of New York City, only the Bronx can lay claim as the birthplace of one of the greatest directors in history. Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) is regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of the twentieth century. More than a decade since his passing in 1999, he continues to cast a long shadow on the cinema and art world. Kubrick began work as a documentary photographer, eventually moving into film production which would remain his primary vocation for the rest of his life.

Kubrick was self-taught in almost all aspects of cinema and directing. He married his high school sweetheart Toba Metz in May 1948 while working at Look magazine, second only to Life for circulation. They lived together in New York’s Greenwich Village, and it was during this time that Kubrick’s interest in film took root. He frequented film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and various cinemas around New York City including several films directed by Max Ophüls and Elia Kazan, both of whom would have a significant influence on his later work.

Working his way quickly through a succession of eagerly inventive genre exercises in the 1950s, Kubrick directed the noir film, Killer’s Kiss, the caper flick, The Killing and the action film, Paths of Glory, all on a shoestring budget. He then made a splash in 1960 with his acclaimed epic, Spartacus, which turned out to be one of the best films of its genre. After this he spent the remainder of his career living and filming in the United Kingdom.

Kubrick’s home became his workplace where he did his writing, research, editing and management of production details. Kubrick directed, produced and wrote all or part of the screenplays for nearly all his films. As with his earlier shorts, he was the cinematographer and editor on the first two of his thirteen feature films. This afforded him almost complete artistic control over his work, as well as the rare advantage of having financial support from major Hollywood studios.

With 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a science-fiction film noted for its innovative visual effects and scientific realism, Kubrick broke new cinematic ground. This visionary film became one of his most influential, and redefined the parameters of cinematic experience.

Kubrick pioneered the use of specially designed lenses for shooting scenes lit by natural candlelight (Barry Lyndon), as well as the Steadicam, which allowed stable and fluid tracking (The Shining). He also sought more controversial ventures, as with Lolita and the pulp thriller Dr. Strangelove, which were virtually banned in the U.S. By then internationally renowned, Kubrick’s famed meticulousness and particular working method involved long preparation and production periods, which consequently led to longer waiting lines for fans.

The maverick auteur was noted for being a perfectionist, taking painstaking care with scene staging and working closely with his actors. His films, typically adaptations of novels or short stories, were acknowledged for their dazzling and unique cinematography, attention to detail and use of music scores. Combined with his ability to perform miracles with actors, Kubrick rose quickly to become one of the world’s most important filmmakers.

Lolita
Film still from “Lolita” 1962

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Lolita, his famed tragicomedy starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and the nymphet, Sue Lyons. It debuted in America in 1962. Originally written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955 as a screenplay, the film became a scandalous classic, and its title became synonymous in American lexicon with a sexually charged underage girl. Regarding its controversial plot, one can’t help but wonder just “how did they ever make a movie of ‘Lolita?’”. This became the clever advertisement copy for Kubrick’s adaptation. The movie bears only a slight resemblance to the original screenplay. The casting of brilliant actors and Kubrick’s directing genius resulted in a film acceptable for the heavily censored 1960s.

The movie was called “sheer unrestrained pornography” by critic Dorothy Parker, reviewed as “hebephila-related content” by universities and drew an “X” rating from the Catholic Church. Despite such disparaging and misguided remarks, Kubrick’s film offers a challenge for viewers around the world to face a universal social condition, beautiful or not. His adaptation of the screenplay into a movie that three decades later still equally rivets and revolts viewers is testimony to his unparalleled talent and vision.

Kubrick’s skill behind the camera and his ability to create visual intrigue were evident long before he became a Hollywood icon. In his student days, when he wasn’t playing chess for quarters in Washington Square Park, he was taking photos for his high school, for which he was chosen as the official school photographer at the age of 17. Shortly after graduation in 1945, he sold a photograph to Look magazine for 25 dollars, of a broken-hearted news vendor reacting to the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A year later, unable to gain admission to day session classes at colleges, he briefly attended evening classes at the City College of New York (CCNY). Eventually, he became a freelance photographer, and by graduation, he had sold an entire photographic series to Look magazine. Shortly thereafter, Kubrick joined Look’s staff to become the youngest staff photographer in the magazine’s history.

Even before he made his first 16mm documentary film, Kubrick’s visionary depictions through photography of American society likely changed the way magazines portray imagery. During his five years with Look he completed dozens of photographic reportage assignments in New York City as well as abroad, capturing both street scenes and commanding portraits of public and private figures. The resulting thousands of negatives have remained in archives ever since. Kubrick’s photographs vary in subject, but people were always the central focus of his attention.

He continued to work for the general-interest magazine until 1951 when he left to pursue filmmaking full-time. It was during this period working as a photojournalist that Kubrick’s respected and most imitated style first became apparent. Against the backdrop of America’s social and political transformation after World War II, Kubrick began to create a photographic series between 1945 and 1950. The resulting sequential construction of his photojournalism served as the basis for his cinematographic style.

Art historian and Kubrick expert Ranier Crone, examined Kubrick’s photographs not only in relation to his later films but also to his contribution to twentieth-century art history and photography. Crone discovered how one of the most influential and successful film directors of our time used photography to master visual techniques and cultivate his signature style. By nineteen, Kubrick had demonstrated an immense talent in constructing complex compositions in which camera positioning and lighting play a crucial role. This focus on characterization and spontaneity became emblematic of Kubrick’s portraiture. With his unflinching eye, his subjects were transformed into larger than life figures, as they were placed within a dramatic context.

Kubrick, Street Conversations 1946
Street Conversations 1946

Kubrick’s reportage expanded to include complex narratives and American stereotypes. In an interview, Steven Spielberg commented that the way Kubrick “tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories”. Kubrick draws psychological portraits that combine drama, irony, and often mystery, heralding his trademark cinematic style. Kubrick’s photographs, which are fascinating accounts of life in the late 1940s, are also a major contribution to American photography of that era.

Kubrick’s photography, like his films covered a wide range of entertaining genres including comedy, horror, science fiction and quotidian life. His series featured everyone from commoners to emblematic figures: General Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University, 1948; Betsy von Furstenberg, 1949; shoeshine boys and boys boxing at the Police Athletic League Boxing; Rosemary Williams and other showgirls at the Copacabana Club; acrobats and circus sideshow performers like Rasmus Nielsen, and a rollerskating monkey at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus; Johnny Grant of ‘Johnny on the Spot’, one of the first on-the-ground news reporters of the Hollywood celebrity scene; and the boxer, Walter Cartier.

The essence of New York is embodied in Kubrick’s photos of young boys and girls, in those of the boxer Walter Cartier and images of Johnny Grant, the honorary mayor of Hollywood. The expanding definition of the American family is represented in the images of the shoeshine boys, while earlier images of Rosemary Williams in her changing room may have been found to be too shocking for most publications of the time. Finally, the paddy wagon series with jailed robbers are powerful and dynamic. Kubrick was a natural born photographer, and one can see easily why he shot so many scenes in his films himself.

Kubrick had a formidable eye for drama and composition even as a kid. His snapshots of everyday life in the 40s are still inspiring, and it is remarkable how many look like shots from his films. For example, a portrait of a Columbia University professor is reminiscent of Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, and could be considered a possible source of inspiration for the movie. Kubrick’s photos are packed with drama and beauty and he had a keen eye for an image, moving or still.

For his in-depth mini series of photographs and the smaller, related portraits of the 1940s, Kubrick sought to depict the spirit of the times but still showcase his discerning eye. The nipple-pierced sideshow performer, “Tough Titty” and the half-naked Rosemary Williams testify to the provocative countercultural behavior of the city; while the positioning of characters within his series suggest a complex narrative.

Kubrick photographing Rosemary Williams
Stanley Kubrick photographing showgirl Rosemary Williams, 1949

In 2000, BAFTA renamed their Britannia lifetime achievement award the Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award. Kubrick won the BAFTA award in 1999, one year prior to its being renamed in his honor. This put him among a line of filmmakers who also had awards named after them such as D. W. Griffith, Laurence Olivier, Cecil B. DeMille, and Irving Thalberg.

Of the 300-plus assignments Kubrick did for Look from 1946 to 1951, more than 100 are in the Library of Congress collection. All of the Look jobs with which he was associated have been duly cataloged with detailed descriptions for images that were printed. Many early photographs taken between 1945-1950 have been published in the book Drama and Shadows [2005, Phaidon Press] and also appear as a special feature on the 2007 Special Edition DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 2011, twenty-five of Kubrick’s photos taken for Look that were previously available only for viewing in museum archives or books, were hand selected from thousands of negatives by independent curators at the Museum of the City of New York, and made available as limited edition prints. The images present a complex blend of composition, light and mystery capturing the drama – both human and artistic – that infused Kubrick’s career.

Whether photographic or moving, Kubrick’s images have the potential to become emblematic of an embattled past that still resonates with us today. Directors ranging from the Coen Brothers to Tim Burton continue to pay visual homage to his works in their own films, and according to Steven Spielberg, “Nobody could shoot a picture better in history.”

Article by Heidi Lee for The Untitled Magazine “Cinema” Issue 5

Images Courtesy of The Stanley Kubrick Archives & The Museum of The City of New York 

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