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A Legend's Take on Manhattan

October 25, 1998|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Fred Zinnemann was one of Hollywood's most distinguished directors. The winner of four Oscars, he directed such classics as "High Noon," "From Here to Eternity," "A Man for All Seasons" and "Julia" during his 50-year career.

Zinnemann, who died last year at age 89, initially studied in Paris to become a cinematographer. But when the Austrian emigre came to the United States in 1929, he was denied admission to Hollywood's cameraman's union. One of the ways he vented his creativity was by taking photographs.

Forty-five of these remarkable black-and-white images are on display in the lobby gallery at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. "Fred Zinnemann's New York Photographs, 1929-32," which runs through Jan. 17, marks the first time his photographs have been displayed in the United States.

Ellen Harrington, the academy's exhibitions coordinator, says Zinnemann's photos have "an eternal sensibility."

"I'm looking at one of his pictures of the Manhattan skyline. The skyline looks the same--it has a contemporary feel--but yet you know somehow the era in which it was taken. It has the patina and the finish and the slightly fuzzy [quality of the] 35-millimeter that he was using."

The 22-year-old Zinnemann actually arrived in New York on the day the stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929. "He kind of got off the boat and started taking pictures," says his son, film producer Tim Zinnemann. "When he was rejected by the cameraman's union in Hollywood, he became an assistant to various directors."

One of those directors worked in New York. So Zinnemann returned to the Big Apple in 1932 and went out every Sunday and took photographs with the purpose of doing a book.

"I think he was funded by a friend who was a writer," Zinnemann says. The book never came to fruition because of the Depression. "So he had all of these marvelous pictures, and he just put them back in a closet and forgot that he had them until about 1989."

As soon as his son saw them, he tried to persuade his father to show them. "At that point, he took an offhanded view toward it all, but he had some that he framed that he liked in his London office." A visitor to the office was impressed and contacted the curator of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

"As a result, he donated about 30 photographs," Zinnemann says. "They did a big exhibition in '92 at the Victoria and Albert. They have a lot of his [movie] stills in a permanent collection. One of [these photos] is on permanent display."

After his father's death, Zinnemann brought the photographs back to Los Angeles and contacted the academy about doing an exhibition.

"You know when he did these he was 22 to 24," Zinnemann says. "That is something you don't teach someone. You either have that [artistic] ability or you don't. I wanted to lay this [exhibition] out as an immigrant seeing America through an immigrant's eyes."

Harrington fell in love with the photographs as soon as she saw them. The academy also is the beneficiary of Zinnemann's vast collection of shooting scripts, personal notes and journals his wife kept on the set.

"It's kind of amazing that this is a somewhat forgotten part of his life," Harrington says. "He was really a cameraman. . . . He was wandering the streets with his camera and getting these incredible architectural shots and capturing things that only existed from that time period."

One example: the stark study of an elderly man carrying a placard reading: "I Demand My Life's Savings, $2,950 from the Bankers Trust Co."

Zinnemann is particularly taken with the photos his father shot on a rooftop in Times Square the night Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. "He was shooting toward Times Square, and you see Roosevelt on screen the moment that he won."

"You think of this young kid just arriving from Europe and walking around New York and seeing familiar images," Harrington says. "I have seen Grand Central Station many times, but his photograph is almost a church-like picture. You see this incredible light coming through [the station]. It is just a mystical, special place."

Zinnemann, says Harrington, "was full of optimism in this world, and he did take over America ultimately and emerged as such a success and a multiple Oscar winner."

Included in the exhibition will be a video loop of film clips and other materials on Zinnemann that were put together after his death.

The photographs will get a gallery display next March in New York, and Zinnemann hopes to do a book, which will include other early photos not in the show "which were from his trips by bus across the country--shots of mountains, Indians and cowboys and getting stuck in the mud."

Zinnemann believes that his father's fans will experience "another facet of his talent" with these photographs. "Even as a young man he had this incredible vision and incredible eye which served him well in his later life," he says.

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"Fred Zinnemann's New York Photographs," Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon-6 p.m. Free. (310) 247-3600.

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