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Wallace Seawell, 90; shot portraits in heyday of the stars

June 03, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Wallace Seawell, a top Hollywood portrait and glamour photographer during the heyday of movie stars such as Sophia Loren, Tony Curtis and Gregory Peck, has died. He was 90.

Seawell died Tuesday of age-related causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his friend, publicist Alan Eichler.

During his more than 60-year career, Seawell shot portraits of such varied personalities as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the duke and duchess of Windsor, the Harlem Globetrotters and the Gabor sisters.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, the shah of Iran and the king and queen of Siam were among the other notables who posed for Seawell.

But Hollywood stars were his specialty, and he did work for movie studios and fan magazines.

Among the numerous stars captured by Seawell's camera were Bette Davis, Janet Leigh, Jayne Mansfield, Doris Day, Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Seawell also shot photographs for record albums by artists such as Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Sam Cooke and Pearl Bailey.

"He was a very well-respected photographer," said Robert Wagner, recalling that Seawell had been close to him and Natalie Wood and photographed them as a young married couple. "He was very forthright, and you felt very comfortable with him; he was at the top of his game."

For many years, beginning in the 1960s, Seawell worked out of his antique-filled home in West Hollywood, where he had a studio in the music room.

"His entire house was a studio," Eichler said. "It was very ornate and elaborately furnished with antiques and statues, and he used every room in the house to photograph."

When Seawell was hired to shoot stills of Paul Newman and Ava Gardner for the 1972 film "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," Eichler said, part of the movie set was re-created in his home studio.

Earlier in his career, Seawell was under personal contract to Howard Hughes at RKO, where his office adjoined Hughes'.

"He was from the glamour and golden age [of Hollywood] from the late '40s to the mid-'60s," said Ron Avery, president of the Motion Picture and Television Photo Archive, which owns Seawell's photographs.

"Wally was a very dapper dresser, a very proper and well-mannered man, and he had a way of working with celebrities that he photographed so that he got really wonderful expressions and poses out of these people," Avery said.

"His portraiture and his way of shooting was from a time that no longer exists: when you had a celebrity in front of the camera and you had their attention for just that purpose and you had them there for an hour or more, and you had the time to do wonderful shots and really put your heart into it. It wasn't a quick grab shot."

And, Avery said, "a lot of the people he shot wound up being friends, and he continued to shoot for them beyond the magazine or studio assignment."

As Seawell told the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune in 2000, it was "the greatest time to be in Hollywood."

"You could really get to know the stars then," he said. "They threw big parties in their homes, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to most of them. I was a good dancer, so I got to dance with everybody. I guess Natalie Wood was my favorite partner."

Born in Atlanta on Sept. 16, 1916, Seawell moved with his family to Sarasota when he was 7. Encouraged by a high school art teacher, he originally intended to become a portrait painter. He was awarded a year's scholarship at the Ringling School of Art and Design in 1937.

But he became fascinated with photography and was accepted as a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he graduated with honors in 1940. He then became chief set designer and fashion photographer at the Eastman Fashion Studio in New York.

After producing and designing nearly 50 training films for the Army Signal Corps during World War II, Seawell moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the studio of Paul Hesse, a leading West Coast photographer.

With Hesse, Seawell headed the portrait, theatrical and business-executive departments -- as well as working in fashion, illustration and commercial photography for about 20 years before opening his home studio.

"Wallace Seawell's Hollywood Camera" was published by Whitestone Publications in 1962.

A memorial service for Seawell, who is survived by several nieces and nephews, is pending.


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