“To make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did, you may not have to know very much about anything else, but you must know about photography.” – Stanley Kubrick.
The majority of the world knows of Kubrick the film director and producer. You know the ones, A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove, A Space Odyssey and The Shining amongst countless others. Throughout his career in film he was noted for his slow method of working, the scrupulous care of which he took choosing his subjects and the technical perfectionism and reluctance to speak to the press. His reasoning; “Nobody likes explanations.”
His films were characterized by a formal visual style and meticulous attention to detail. Not so many of us are familiar with the many other sides to Kubrick though, in particular; Kubrick the photographer.
New York born Kubrick was considered intelligent despite his poor grades at school. His father, hoping to find something to interest his poorly academic son, introduced him to chess. Taking to the game passionately he quickly became a skilled player. His father’s decision to give Stanley a Graflex camera a year later on his thirteenth birthday was to be an even wiser decision. As with chess he took to the process instantly and soon became an avid photographer making trips around New York which he would go on to develop in a friend’s darkroom. While still in high school he was also chosen as an official school photographer for a year which fuelled his passion to continue.
Having finished school he began seeking jobs as a freelancer. His skill at chess remained relevant as he supplemented his lack of other income by playing chess for quarters in Washington Square Park and various other chess clubs. At sixteen he sold a photographic series portraying a newsvendor’s reaction to the death of Franklin D Roosevelt to ‘Look’ magazine. Look’s preferred method which involved the form of a narrative by episodes did not gain approval from many of the leading photojournalists (the Magazine desired constant follow up of the characters portrayed in every action.) The intruding style however fascinated the mind of Kubrick; he loved the idea of building up to a narrative through a series of still images. At seventeen he was hired by Look Magazine as a permanent photo reporter. His unique and strangely matured talent made him the youngest photographer on the staff payroll.
In the summer of 1949 Look sent him to Chicago for a shoot to accompany a story “Chicago City of Contrast” by Irv Kupcinet. He returned with 40 rolls of film and a collection of eight brilliant images which were to be used in the piece. Each of the images tells its own fascinating story, and within them, his passion for story telling that led to his career in film is evident. He gave us, the viewers this magical ability to interpret the psychological features of the subjects appearing in the photograph.
He was an avid follower of boxing and relished nothing more than shooting the famous Rocky Graziano as he graced the ring. He liked to convey the opposite classes of a particular area, from a coming of age socialite Betsy Von Furstenberg to the shoe shine boy in the streets of New York City during its progression towards becoming the capital city of the world it is today.
Another of his photo series on the Columbia University portrays the uplifting spirits of a post WWII America. It was evolving to become what Europe had already been for centuries, a leader in both areas of science and culture and Kubrick documented this intense country wide optimism to perfection. Another of his series follows the meditative state of passengers in a series of portraits taken on the New York Subway. In these series’ it becomes apparent that his command of the camera and its angles is almost instinctive to his nature; he picked up a camera and it kind of just worked.
Kubrick’s photographs vary in subject but it’s become apparent people were his main focus. He had this natural ease and great reflexes, always finding the perfect moment to capture a subjects expression. This was perhaps aided by his ability and immense talent to connect with his subjects despite the various differences of race age and occupation that lay between them. He enjoyed particularly the study of various performers preparing to take to the stage and his photographs turned narrative stories were often steeped in irony. Meticulous and tedious in his photography works, it was a trait he carried on and became known for in his filmmaking later on. However as a photographer his environment could not always be controlled, and thus it seemed his photographs contained far more spontaneity than his films.
He experimented with varied different means of shooting subjects, one of which involved his attempt to blend into the public and remain anonymous; in order to capture catch his desired image in their purest un-staged state. He would remain unseen hiding his camera’s wire below his jacket, pushing the shutter via a little device hidden in his hand while the camera rested in a little brown bag with a hole only for the lens to peek through. When it came to his indoor studio shootings he preferred to use as much natural light as possible by working and experimenting with his exposure and diaphragm opening times.
Not only did his photographs portray stories and document various elements of life in 1940’s America, it also proved to shape his talent within film and was carried with him throughout his life. Kubrick often spoke of his transition from a photographer to a director claiming that he could never have been a filmmaker without his “photographer’s eye” It was used consistantly throughout his filmmaking to ensure continuity in filming or to research locations before setting up cameras to shoot; nothing was ever less than perfectly framed and the lighting always chosen to perfection. He often chose to pick characters close to his heart; take for instance his film Full Metal Jacket, he chose the film’s central character who experiences how the military shaped the media’s coverage of war to be a photographer known as Private Joker. He also enjoyed delving into the dark and the mysterious throughout his films, perhaps stemming from his photos taken on the subway and lesser privileged parts of America. “I’ve got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists, neither takes life as it is. Any tragic story has to be in conflict with things as they are.” – Kubrick.
As a whole, his photographs shaped the man behind the movies we loved. His photographs documented the difference between the privileged and the deprived and during his five years as a Look Photographer he provided the world with a fascinating and no holds barred account of 1940’s post war America.
“Stanley Kubrick Drama and Shadows” written by Rainer Crone documents his early photographs and contains numerous never before seen photographs amongst some unseen since original publication in Look magazine. Thousands of negatives still remain in the Look archives and one can only wonder what mark he may have left on the world of photography had he not decided to make the move to film.