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Ruth Harriet Louise
CREDIT: Self portrait by Ruth Harriet Louise

Leaders in their field - Ruth Harriet Louise

Portrait photography in the Hollywood machine

I visited the John Kobal Foundation exhibition "Hollywood Icons" in Porto, Portugal a few weeks ago. On show were publicity pictures from decades of Hollywood publicity, starting in 1916. As you would expect from the date, most of the early work was in silver halide monochrome with many vintage originals in the mix of prints. Two things I found fascinating; the styles of the content and the photographers.

The early images often featured a soft focus style, to me more reminiscent of painting than photography. But as I walked through the earlier prints it was very apparent that there was a sudden change in style around 1930 with a move from soft focus to sharper higher contrast images. Interesting to walk through the exhibition as a timeline, a curatorial intent that I had seen earlier in the week with a Cartier-Bresson exhibition.

One photographer from the early days caught my eye - Ruth Harriet Louise. Credited with the early publicity pictures of Greta Garbo and  Audrey Hepburn she was the chief studio photographer at MGM for 5 years. Unfortunately she died in her 30s but in addition to her impressive output on 8"x10" film cameras I was taken by her style of portrait photography which seemed to me to be more like a portrait painter than a photographer. In the mid 1920s she must have been one of the earliest female photographers to make it as a Hollywood Icon in her own right.