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Love affair with the camera

A Garbo exhibit illustrates the movie legend's timeless beauty.

June 09, 2005|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

The movies made Garbo a star, but the stills made her an icon.

At the height of her fame, her lustrous visage was captured in hundreds of photographs and disseminated through newspapers, movie magazines and theater posters. Through them we could admire, at leisure, every beautiful detail -- the arched brows, the deep-set eyes, the milky complexion, the unhappy mouth. Today, 100 years after her birth, 64 years after her last film ("Two-Faced Woman") and 15 years after her death at age 84, the face of Greta Garbo remains one of the world's most celebrated.

"Garbo's Garbos," a new exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, offers an unusual opportunity to see original prints of the black-and-white photographs that defined her for us. These prints, as the show's title implies, come from her personal collection.

Two years ago, independent curator Robert Dance and Karen Sinsheimer, the museum's curator of photography, flew to Boulder, Colo., where her collection had ended up. They were stunned by its magnitude -- more than 1,000 vintage prints -- and pristine condition. Dance turned to Sinsheimer and said, "I think we've seen the King Tut's tomb of early Hollywood."

Consisting of mostly formal portraits and film stills from her studio days, the treasure trove existed because Garbo insisted on having a copy of every photograph of her used for publicity purposes. They were in excellent condition because she kept them filed away. Grand-nephew Scott Reisfield, who visited her New York apartment many times, recalls, "She never had any photographs of herself around."

Garbo kept these prints until the late 1980s when she handed them over to Reisfield's mother and her niece, Gray Reisfield. After Garbo's death in 1990, Scott Reisfield went through and cataloged them.

"About 10 years ago I thought a show with these photographs would be pretty interesting," he says. "Then I saw that book about Ruth Harriet Louise." Three years ago the Santa Barbara Museum of Art mounted an exhibition about Louise, MGM's style-setting staff photographer from 1925 to 1930. It was accompanied by a University of California book coauthored by curators Dance and Bruce Robertson and featuring a chapter titled "Photographing Garbo."

Reisfield approached Dance about a collaboration. The results: this exhibition, which will travel to New York and Sweden, plus a coffee table book -- "Garbo: Portraits From Her Private Collection," to be published by Rizzoli in September.

Having already attained stardom in her native Sweden, Garbo came to the United States in 1925, under contract to MGM. She quickly grew savvy to the Hollywood publicity machine, and became fussy about how and how often she would be photographed. When she renegotiated her contract -- which she accomplished by threatening to go back to Europe -- she stipulated only one day of photography for each film she made. Yet on that one day, she always showed up on time and she always delivered, Dance says.

The exhibition begins with a handful of photographs taken in Europe, then moves quickly to Hollywood. In the studio portraits taken by Louise, Garbo begins looking like the sultry sex goddess we know her for.

"Louise defines the Garbo look," Dance says. That Garbo look includes a languorous shot of her with her head tossed back, her long neck exposed.

Though most of the 90 photographs in "Garbo's Garbos" are individual portraits from the Reisfield family collection, there are a few exceptions. There is, for example, a scene still from "Flesh and the Devil," the 1926 film that made Garbo an American star. In it, she and John Gilbert huddle together, cheek to cheek. The glow from his match (a penlight hidden in the palm of his hand) illuminates their faces, but Garbo's ecstatic countenance seems to offer something more -- a sense of intimacy.

"She changed the course of Hollywood filmmaking," Dance says. "She was the first actress that had this smoldering sexuality. She brought eroticism to the screen."

After Louise left MGM in 1930, Clarence Sinclair Bull took over her duties. He became famous as "the man who shot Garbo" -- refining, even streamlining, her image. The third gallery contains what Dance calls "the wall of glory" -- four striking head shots from a 1931 photo session for "Mata Hari" with Bull, taken quickly as Garbo shifted her pose -- now looking to the distance, now placing her fingers to her forehead, now propping her hands on either side of her face. He learned what Edward Steichen had when shooting her for Vanity Fair in 1928: Garbo was so photogenic that clothing and props should be kept to a minimum.

"Simplicity is Garbo's god," costume designer Adrian said. "Not only does she live by it, but she responds to it in others."

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