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A Tribute to the Masters of Starlight : Archivists Rescue Images of Hollywood's Past

August 10, 1986|BARBARA BAIRD | Times Staff Writer

Thousands of fine photographs illustrating the history of Hollywood and the film industry are being rescued from destruction by a nonprofit organization called the Hollywood Photographers Archives.

A small group of photographers and artists organized the archives 3 1/2 years ago because they were concerned that important images of Hollywood's past were being thrown out when studios, publishers and photographers discarded old negatives and prints to make room for newer work.

The group hopes eventually to establish a permanent cultural center honoring Hollywood photographers and exhibiting their best work, according to board chairman Sid Avery.

In the meantime, curators Linda Rich and David Fahey are selecting works for the group's first major exhibition, which is to be presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Portraits of Stars

The December, 1987, show will feature some of the most outstanding works created by Hollywood photographers from the inception of the film industry about 1910 to the demise of the so-called "studio system" in the late 1960s, Rich said.

Photographers produced a monumental record of film making during the studio-system era, when they were on contract with the studios to shoot pictures of every major scene in a film plus portraits of the stars.

While other organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the USC and UCLA archives are involved in saving motion picture films, photographs and memorabilia, the Hollywood Photographers Archives collects only still photographs, officials said.

Among the photos they have rescued are a 1940s mood shot by John Swope of actor John Garfield lighting a cigarette, Elmer Fryer's publicity shot of a glamorous Bette Davis for the 1933 film "Bureau of Missing Persons" and John Engstead's 1940s-era candid of a suave Fred Astaire practicing dance steps in front of a mirror.

The archives collection includes work by Avery, who headed the Army's Pictorial Service and Laboratory in London during World War II and went on to become a magazine photographer for Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post before starting his own advertising photography business. Among his contributions to the archives is a stunning shot of Elizabeth Taylor during the 1955 filming of "Giant."

Archives officials said that wonderfully artistic photographs often have not received the recognition they deserve because they were shot for movie publicity, magazines and commercials, and consequently were not viewed as having artistic or cultural importance.

"The glamour portraits, unit stills, picture essays and advertisements that (Hollywood photographers) created have not yet been seriously researched in terms of their contributions to contemporary history, the history of photography and the history of film," founders said in the archives' brochure.

Not only have studios and publishers discarded these photographs, but so have some photographers, officials said.

"In many instances, photographers themselves have been careless, storing their uncatalogued photographs where dust or humidity could damage them," the brochure notes.

"Some of the surviving families of deceased photographers have disposed of the photographer's archives, unaware of their historic or cultural value. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: Irreplaceable images perish."

The archives organization is able to save important photographs through countless volunteer hours and financial contributions from a handful of sponsoring "angels," Rich said.

Key contributors include Avery, who donates his studio and staff and who acquired for the archives a collection of 25,000 Warner Bros. studio stills, some dating back to the silent film era; Shirley Burden, chairman emeritus of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Earl Witscher, who donated 20,000 works by pioneer advertising photographer Paul Hesse.

The archives group, with offices on Sunset Boulevard, is operating on a limited budget of about $100,000 a year, which is not nearly enough to process and preserve the 100,000 photographs and negatives in its collection, Avery said.

While other institutions spend as much as $300 to process each photograph or negative, the archivists use volunteer labor and process materials at a fraction of that amount, $10 to $15 apiece, he said.

Catalogue Is Computerized

Rescuing important photos is a time-consuming and painstaking process that starts prosaically with vacuuming the dusty boxes in which materials may have been stored for years. Then every print is cleaned individually, placed in a protective casing and catalogued on a computer.

Works are selected for the archives for their artistic and stylistic merit, Fahey said.

Many photographers who have worked behind the scenes in commercial and studio work in Hollywood have remained anonymous and the archives group hopes to make the public aware of their artistry, he said.

"We are interested in bringing recognition to the photographers, in recognizing their stylistic and technical contributions to the photography medium," Fahey said.

"Film and photography have been very inspirational," he said. "We all grew up with it. . . . We see it as a big chunk of the American heritage and we would like to be actively involved in preserving it."

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