John Kobal 1940-1991 : An Remarkable Lifetime

Archives – October 2012

John Kobal, who died 20-one several years in the past this month, was a pre-eminent film historian and collector of Hollywood film pictures. The creator of around thirty books on movie and film images, he was recognised for his creative and exuberant individuality, as nicely as his voracious expertise of the trivialities of movie and pictures lore. He is credited with essentially ‘rediscovering’ a lot of of the great Hollywood Studio photographers – George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Ted Allan, Ernest Bachrach, Ruth Harriet Louise, ER Richee amongst some others – who ended up used by the movie studios to create the glamorous, legendary 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 primary negatives and produce new prints for exhibitions he then mounted around the globe at, amongst other folks, Victoria & Albert Museum, London National Portrait Gallery, London Museum of Fashionable 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 times, type the core of the John Kobal Foundation Archive that he donated to the basis 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 let him sleep 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 first title remaining Ivan Kobaly. He emigrated to Canada with his loved ones when he was 10. From the initially he was a passionate filmgoer and one particular of his earliest memories was sneaking into a Rita Hayworth movie staying demonstrated to the American profession forces in a hall up coming to his grandmother’s dwelling in Salzburg.

Even though he seems to have assimilated pretty promptly into the life of Ottawa, likely the dislocation of the shift emphasised his tendency to are living more intensely in movie than in truth. A love affair with the films had begun when Kobal was a boy in Austria and ongoing when his relatives immigrated to Canada. He later wrote that “Hollywood exerted a highly effective appeal on the creativity of a youthful guy utilised to living in psychological isolation.” Along with observing just about every motion picture he could, his passion for collecting was ignited and Kobal acquired (and saved) lover journals and started off sending away for the 8 X 10 glossies that had been dispersed by the studios and delivered into the nervous palms of supporters worldwide. Well-liked considering the fact that the earliest days of movement pics, these publications and the flood of pictures produced by the studios saved favorites in the minds of lovers and titillated motion picture goers, even those living in significantly away places.

He was an actor at school, most observed according to his very own model for picturesque disasters which surrounded his each and every physical appearance. Undeterred, at the age of 18 he headed off to New York with the intention of likely on stage professionally. Soon afterwards he arrived in England, which was to continue to be his household for the rest of his lifetime. He put in the future 4 yrs touring the English provinces in a variety of performs paying out his spare time scouring antique marketplaces and 2nd hand bookshops for items of movie memorabilia and film stills.

He usually carried the image collection with him, normally augmenting it when he obtained the possibility. In 1964 he went to New York where he freelanced for BBC Radio’s ‘Movie Go Round’ programme and later turned their US film correspondent. The American Movie business was in a period of significant transition and the Hollywood Studios were being closing down their offices and discarding previous publicity resources – posters, images and many others. – that couple of regarded as of any price at that time.The studio method was extended lifeless and television had effectively drawn audiences absent from motion picture theaters. The nostalgia fad of the newborn boomers was continue to a decade off. For the duration of the 1960s five of Hollywood’s eight major studios — MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal and United Artists — were marketed off to conglomerates, the guys in satisfies obtaining very little desire in the historical past of the enterprises they were being buying. A collective madness swept via Los Angeles during this time period of consolidation and quite a few studios drop treasure troves of publicity and promotional content designed to assist the films that entertained audiences due to the fact the 1920s.

Kobal collected any images he could find but what experienced the most resonance for Kobal, even so, were being authentic portraits, the 11 X 14 inch silver prints that froze in time for him a moment in American cultural lifestyle when glamour dominated the movies. They had been a tangible relationship to the earlier and he gobbled up them up wherever he could find them. When Kobal very first commenced critically analyzing and obtaining Hollywood portraits and stills, this material was regarded practically nothing additional than insignificant Hollywood ephemera. Only a few movie fanatics, which includes Kobal, scrambled and competed to acquire authentic studio images. Kobal did, however, acquire much better than the other folks, and in the finish utilized his amazing selection in the assistance of restoring the reputations of the photographers who had aided build the stars in the first position.

For me,” wrote Kobal, “the ‘movie star’ was generally the most remarkable matter about the flicks.” And by movie star, Kobal meant the good faces that graced cinema from its beginnings, by film noir and into the 1950s. Like all supporters, Kobal liked the videos, but in the period prior to video clip and DVD there were handful of options to see previous movies. He shared with followers from the decades just before he was born an insatiable wish to find out as substantially as he could about his favorites and eaten every tidbit provided in fan publications and any other advertising materials he could uncover. When Kobal moved to New York in 1964, and later on Los Angeles, he was confused by the truth that television confirmed films during the day and evening, albeit often butchered to slip a two hour motion picture in a ninety minute slot which includes commercials. Below Kobal was released to additional of the excellent faces of the previous, many very long dead, retired or now decades previous their primary. Conference the stars whose faces flickered on late night time television turned his holy grail.

‘It was Tallulah Bankhead who unlocked Hollywood for me. Just one evening she called George Cukor and mentioned ‘Dahling George…’ and immediately after they gossiped eternally, she remembered why she experienced termed him in the very first put and said, ‘I have this diviihhhne younger guy below, and he’s likely to Hollywood and he does not know any person and you know every person and he’s definitely a most major younger gentleman.’ She looked at me to make certain, and then mortified me by telling Cukor that I was broke ‘but presentable, dahling. And he is aware every thing about everybody’s movies’

At the time the doorways of Hollywood have been open up to Kobal, obsessive accumulation became the hallmark of his acquisition of star portraits. He acquired solitary prints, little collections and when the option arose a star’s or photographer’s archives. 
All Hollywood pictures fell less than the area of the studio’s publicity departments and each and every photograph taken served, in 1 way or one more, the advertising of a movie or star and, by affiliation, the studio’s manufacturer. As Gloria Swanson informed Kobal in 1964, “Audiences make stars, either they like you or they really do not.” These visuals have been following all an vital forex of Hollywood. The occupations of legendary figures these as Crawford, Gable and Cooper, Kobal proposed “were being produced feasible by way of pictures and would in all probability not have existed with no“… Extended ahead of the paparazzi snaps, which changed the portrait in the 1960s as the fan’s favorite car or truck of relationship to stars, studio-managed publicity pictures chronicled the lives of stars on screen and off. Though these might feel synthetic in contrast to the energetic intrusion of the speedy fireplace triggers of today’s electronic cameras, they recorded an era when supporters appeared up to the stars as templates of manners and vogue.

Studio portraits taken at MGM and Paramount have been offered in the finest numbers as Hollywood’s top two studios competed with one another for stars and publicity. Kobal may well not have consciously selected MGM as his place of finest desire, but the combination of availability of pictures and the coincidence of his associations with George Hurrell and especially Clarence Sinclair Bull gave him an unparalleled entry to MGM product. This resulted in Kobal attaining a pretty much encyclopedic selection of portraits of MGM stars and highlighted players. There may well also have been a thing diverse about MGM photographs, as longtime studio photographer Bud Graybill indicates, “A single factor about MGM, however, was that the idea driving the stars was to make them extra glamorous, much more remote, not so available.

As Kobal fulfilled one wonderful woman just after the next from Hollywood’s glory days and assiduously gathered the portraits that helped each individual turn out to be a star, he commenced to understand the complexity of not only developing, but sustaining, glamour. In a typical Kobal transform of phrase he famous, “Glamour experienced been sparks thrown off by the giants in their enjoy, and it was all those electrical flashes that manufactured them interesting.” Discussing portraiture with Kobal, just one of people giants, Loretta Younger, recounted, “We all considered we have been attractive since by the time they completed with us we were being magnificent.” Youthful was, perhaps, getting unnecessarily modest, but it is accurate that even the most gorgeous actress been given from the hands of her photographer an added polish and shimmer. “The people today who ended up the resource of the sparks” in accordance to Kobal, “could never ever be made, but they had been harnessed to burn as a flame which was managed by the studio.” 
This did not come about unintentionally or haphazardly. “What took place in the galleries” wrote Kobal, “was an incredible point, anything that was beyond the ken of the studios and owed absolutely nothing to contracts, scripts or the publicity division.” Performers worked as difficult, or as Kobal observed it, probably even tougher, in the portrait studio than on the set. “To achieve the results of the terrific portraits, it was vital for the sitters to access a point out of have faith in with the photographer so total that they would unconsciously expose the really starvation that experienced pushed them to the position the place they now observed by themselves.

I photographed much better than I appeared,” Crawford informed Kobal, “so it was effortless for me…I let myself go before the digital camera. I suggest, you simply cannot photograph a useless cat. You have to present something.” Greta Garbo, whose languid fashion belies terms like “hunger” and “driven”, was, nevertheless, as good a portrait subject as she was a movie actress. Kobal would have us comprehend that whatsoever it was that produced Garbo Hollywood’s finest movie star was also doing the job at total throttle in the portrait studio. Katharine Hepburn put it succinctly, “If you are in the organization of becoming photographed, you ought to like to have your image taken, if not you should not be doing it. It is component of your work.”

Like so a lot of tales about John Kobal, the a single about his noteworthy part as a connoisseur, collector and chronicler of Hollywood photography begins with a movie star. Operating as a journalist in 1969, Kobal frequented the set of Myra Breckenridge to job interview display screen legend Mae West. His reporter’s qualifications granted him accessibility to the set and even though awaiting summons from Pass up West, Kobal had the prospect to meet up with members of the film’s crew. Building modest chat with an on-set photographer, he acquired the man’s identify was George Hurrell. This surprised Kobal, for he acknowledged the identify from the credit marks embossed or stamped on numerous of the Hollywood pictures he had collected due to the fact childhood. But those pictures were being from the 1920s and 1930s, and had been pictures of the biggest of Hollywood’s stars, Davis, Garbo, Gable, Harlow. Could it be the exact same guy almost 4 decades later on, still practicing his craft on a film established?

Next this auspicious assembly, Kobal and Hurrell solid a friendship, which allowed the younger guy to find out from a firsthand supply exactly how Hollywood’s glamour was built. Whilst motion picture stars had been catnip to Kobal, following meeting Hurrell he became almost as voracious in finding and interviewing Hollywood photographers. By the 1970s a the greater part of the photographers who had worked in the twenties and thirties, like their topics, had been retired and a couple had died. What built Kobal’s task even extra challenging was the challenge of photographer’s credit that surrounded studio photography.

Even though a lot of portraits ended up embossed or stamped with the photographer’s name, scene-stills had been pretty much by no means credited. Bit by bit, and afterwards frantically, Kobal established about trying to find just who experienced taken what picture. Kobal did not fulfill absolutely everyone who shot portraits and stills in Hollywood but he was the first who tried to make sense of their critical contribution to film-land background. In his quest to uncover 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.

Each would share his memories and print from his negatives. In return Kobal begun what grew to become his most essential perform — publishing the anthologies of the photographers’ operate that resuscitated overlooked professions. Work that is potentially the most best file accessible of the history of Hollywood’s 1st fifty years. 

Kobal recognized the vital purpose studio photographers had in creating the pictures of the stars and chronicled this previously ignored factor of movie historical past in a succession of guides beginning with Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Pics of Stars 1926-1949 published in 1976. His most critical perform, The Artwork of the Terrific Hollywood Portrait Photographers (1980), was the initial critical systematic analyze of the style and had the included bonus of staying both equally magnificently illustrated and sumptuously made. In that reserve he charted the terrain of Hollywood glamour and supplied glimpses of the (primarily) females who sat right before the cameras and the workings of the (generally) males who developed the illusions. In overall Kobal authored, co-authored or edited thirty-three books, several illustrated from his very own holdings.

Kobal was the initial to organize museum exhibits devoted to Hollywood portraiture. His inaugural hard work was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1974, a present he explained as “the initially exhibition of the Hollywood team.” This was adopted by exhibits he mounted at The Museum of Fashionable Artwork (New York), as nicely as the National Portrait Galleries in Washington and London. The 1st museum exhibition devoted to the career of a single Hollywood photographer was The Man 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 career must be the to start with as a result to be explored simply because no photographer shot as numerous well-known Hollywood faces. Katharine Hepburn wrote the foreword to the accompanying eponymously titled e book, The Person Who Shot Garbo. She named Bull, “one of the greats” and ended her feedback with: “Clarence Bull! And the National Portrait Gallery! WOW!”

Bull’s tenure at MGM, 1924-1961, matched the period of time now described by the previous chestnut, Hollywood’s Golden Age. There is no query that it was the golden age of Hollywood portraiture. The yr Bull retired, 1961, a new form of pictures was commencing to creep into the mainstream of studio film advertising and the Hollywood push. The candid would soon substitute the portrait as the type of picture fans most required to see. Journals begun publishing snaps of Elizabeth Taylor concerning planes and yachts, and Greta Garbo as noticed beneath a floppy hat by way of a telephoto lens. Is it a coincidence that Bull remaining MGM the yr Fellini’s La Dolce Vita introduced to the earth the character Paparazzo, and the paparazzi had been born?

Kobal regarded this shift in angle toward Hollywood pictures and mostly restricted his gathering to do the job produced in advance of 1960. He identified the decades 1925-1940 as the scope of his e book The Artwork of the Terrific Hollywood Photographers and argued that it is from those years that the best innovations took spot. “After 1939,” wrote Kobal “…[the] consequences of great images however lingered on, even as film obtained a lot quicker, lenses sharper, cameras more workable, and negatives lesser, but by the beginning of the 1940s, significantly of the wonderful operate was in excess of.” In earlier books Kobal experienced chronicled Hollywood pictures from the 1940s and 1950s, together with the pioneering use of colour, but right after that 10 years he was mainly silent. The paparazzi held no allure in the Hollywood fantasy so beautifully explained by Kobal. His ebullient individuality – practically absolutely everyone appreciated him – allowed Kobal to turn into the impresario of the record of Hollywood images.

‘To me John was the Claude Levi-Strauss of glamour. He meticulously collected its thousand-and-one particular stories and photographs, and laboriously erected out of them cathedrals full of mild and life and wisdom and humanity.‘ (Donald Lyons, Movie Remark)


Film is the only issue of any imaginative really worth that this century has produced. If not, it is still offering the most fun’ (John Kobal)

The above biography of John Kobal was extracted generally from the foreword to Glamour of the Gods :pictures from the John Kobal Basis (Steidl , 2008) by Robert Dance © Robert Dance and made use of in this article with his authorization.