About five years before his first documentary, Day of the Fight, and eight before Fear and Desire, his first feature film, a 17-year-old Stanley Kubrick sold his first photographs to the American biweekly, Look Magazine. A shy and private high school misfit, the young Kubrick came to light in his documentary-style images, which blurred the line between candid snapshots and staged scenes.
Starting in 1945, his five-year, 13,000-photograph term with Look now finds itself the focus of a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) on the northeastern side of Central Park. Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs explores the assignments and influences that would inform the man who later made The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and more.
Curious to learn what the show says about the notoriously enigmatic filmmaker, I called up MCNY curator of prints and photographs, Sean Corcoran:
VICE: So what’s your background and what led you to this exhibition?
Sean Corcoran: I’m the curator of prints and photographs here at the museum, so part of that job includes developing exhibitions. But I’m also the caretaker and steward for the permanent collection here. These Stanley Kubrick photographs are part of that. They were donated by Look Magazine’s parent company, Cowles Magazines, Inc., starting in the 1950s. This work has been here at the museum for more than 50 years, since not long after they were actually produced. The magazine was basically donating the contact prints and negatives after assignments had been run and were no longer needed. So they’ve been here for a long time, and we are slowly over the years processing the material.
We did a book in the mid 2000s, but we didn’t really digitize and really understand the scope of [Kubrick's] work here until we digitized the collection around 2010, and that’s when we really knew that there were more than 13,000 images by Kubrick in the collection, and that it was this really deep and fantastic trove. It’s insightful not only into the filmmaker he became, but also an insightful look into what post-war New York looked like at the time.
Thirteen thousand photographs is no small feat.
I have a co-curator named Donald Albrecht, and between the two of us, we literally looked through every frame of those 13,000-plus images. They’re basically divided by the assignment, the jobs he did. We looked through all of that work and slowly whittled it down to a combination of pictures that were published by the magazine and unpublished images which kind of give a bit more insight into what Kubrick was personally interested in while he was making these pictures. In a sense, we’re trying to show not only what the magazine published and the published work by Kubrick, but also the personal side of what Kubrick was interested in at the same time.
So much remains unknown about Kubrick the filmmaker. Why turn your attention to Kubrick the photographer?
All this material is part of our collection, he was photographing the street of New York, and that is our mission: We document and show the history of the city in our programming. He is a native New Yorker, and his work by and large is about New York life, New York celebrities, New York everyday stories. You know, those profiles of the common man, let’s say, and the story of a shoeshine boy, or photographing street conversations or showing people at the laundromat. From the kind of everyday New York life thing to celebrity profiles of Montgomery Clift, Faye Emerson, or the bandleader Guy Lombardo, what’s nice is you get to see the range of lifestyles in New York City at the time.
And from the photos themselves, what can we glean about the young Stanley Kubrick?
That’s a good question. You have to remember he sold his first photograph to Look Magazine when he was 17 years old. He was still in high school. Once he graduated high school, he went on staff and remained at Look Magazine until 1950, for about a total of five years, and what you see over time is the real development of a critical eye. A person who learned how to study people and how to capture their underlying emotions and psyche through still photography, which of course translates into the filmmaking. He learned a lot about framing and lighting.
At the time he was very interested in film noir and things like that, so there’s a lot of the dramatic lighting you would see in some of his early films, and also interesting camera angles and everything from very close up shots to deep long shots that you would see in something like 2001. Overall, he learned how to use the camera to frame scenes to give them a more emotional impact in not only the photography, but later in the films.
He also learned how to work within the system, which would be important working within the studio system and the motion picture industry. He learned how to work with the editorial department of the magazine—how they would pitch ideas, how to get his viewpoint across, how to ideally think of the pages of the magazine. He actually also photographed several organizations and he did these in-depth studies of places like Columbia University, and even one assignment for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He went and photographed them in Sarasota practicing for their upcoming season and as part of that, he photographed the management and everything that went into making that operation run smoothly. On some levels, his experience informed his later filmmaking.
What about his personality and habits?
I think that really comes through in the unpublished photographs that we’ve included in the exhibition, because the published photographs were for the magazine, and the magazine was a general interest, family-oriented magazine. For instance, in the magazine on the circus story, there are pictures of trapeze artists and that kind of thing, that were done perfectly for the magazine. But for himself—he had to know these would never be published—he’d take a fantastic photo of this tattooed and pierced man that is almost Diane Arbus-like, so you can kind of get a sense of his own predilections.
How much of the work was staged, and how much of it was candid?
It goes back and forth, even in his earliest work. For instance, he did an assignment called "Life and Love on the New York City Subway," and that is actually a combination of candid and staged photographs. He was trying, in that assignment, to give a sense of a complete picture of what the experience on the New York City subway was like. There are candid pictures of people falling asleep on the train after going to a play or a show, and then there are some staged photographs of lovers caught in mid-embrace, and those are certainly staged. In fact, the woman in the picture is his then-girlfriend, later his first wife, so we know for certain that that’s not a candid photograph. It kind of goes back and forth early on and continues through 1950.
What else can you tell me about inklings of his style later that would appear in his films?
There are some direct links to his early filmmaking. For Look Magazine, he photographed several assignments on boxers. He did one on Rocky Marciano, and another one on Walter Cartier, who ended up being the subject of his first short film, which he actually made while he was still working at Look Magazine. He quit and went full-time into filmmaking [afterward]. That film was called The Day of the Fight. He actually used the assignment he did for Look as the storyboard for the short film. That’s a direct connection. In fact, boxers and showgirls, which he photographed quite a bit for the magazine, are very prominent in his first successful feature film, The Killer’s Kiss, which we included a clip of in the exhibition to draw those comparisons.
So there are some early direct examples, but as he becomes the Kubrick we know, it becomes more subtle. It’s more about ways of seeing and camera styles, camera angles, lighting, things like that. There is one photograph from his Colombia University assignment, of a scientist wearing these round, shaded glasses, that everybody compares to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. There’s certainly a resonance there, but I can’t say "That picture made him portray Peter Sellers in that way." That’s pure conjecture. But when you see it, you immediately think of that film.
From your research, did you dig up any stories about Kubrick during his time at Look Magazine?
If you wanted to listen to it, there's there’s this great interview he did in 1966, where he talks about his early years and how he got into filmmaking. If you have any personal interest at all in Kubrick, I would encourage you to listen to it because it’s pretty fantastic. The one thing we did find, which was actually published in the magazine, is that they were really proud of him and kind of considered him their boy genius. This was like in 1948, when they published the Columbia University story—it was one of his early big features, and he had all the photographs in the story. So on the table of contents, they did a little profile of him, and in the profile they say all the older photographers on staff were mentoring him to become a bit more professional in his work and encouraging him to be a bit more mature. That to me was a nice little tidbit—all these hardened photojournalist veterans taking this young kid, again he’s like 17-18 years old, under their wing and propelling him along into this professional career.
I’m not sure if it directly crosses over into his time at Look Magazine, but can you tell me anything about his relationship to Weegee?
Yeah, it actually does cross over a bit. He was a big admirer of Weegee. In fact, Kubrick was sent by Look Magazine to photograph on the set of the film The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin, which Weegee was involved in. They certainly met and knew each other. And, as a case-in-point in his admiration of Weegee, there’s a series of photographs from an unpublished assignment called "Love Is Everywhere," in which Kubrick is photographing couples embracing on fire escapes, couples kissing in theaters and in alleyways, and they’re all made with infrared photography, which is directly inspired by Weegee photographs. There’s a very direct connection and admiration between Weegee and Kubrick. And then, of course, you probably know he invited Weegee to be the set photographer for Dr. Strangelove years later.
So where would you say Kubrick’s photos fit into American and New York City photographic history?
That’s a good question. I kind of see Stanley as a bridge between again the older-school photojournalists that were at Look—people like Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon who were Farm Security Administration photographers—and I see him as like the next generation, but a little bit before maybe Diane Arbus. He kind of fits somewhere in between. Don’t get me wrong, he’s doing magazine work, so a lot of it is done specifically in their style. But again, if you look at some of his unpublished work, which he was making as much for himself as for the magazine, you see hints of a newer style, more idiosyncratic interests that would never make the magazine, and the types of images that would later be more kind of akin to the next generation of photographers I think. What I can say is he was actually a contemporary of Garry Winogrand. He would have been about the same age as Winogrand and Winogrand would have, right about the same time, been doing the magazine work for magazines like Pageant and other outlets like that. In a sense, the early styles are somewhat similar, though Winogrand went off in kind of a different direction a little later on.
Ok, last question: What’s your favorite Kubrick film, and why?
Oh, that’s a tough one. That’s almost as tough as if you asked me which photograph I liked the best. It’s so hard. Most people think of him for the Warner Bros. films, whereas some of the earlier films are actually quite good. Maybe not quite the genius as the later films, but I think there’s really a lot of merit to some of the earlier like Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, which are more like film noir-style genre movies. But ultimately I guess if I only had to choose one, it would be Dr. Strangelove. There’s such dark humor in it, and it seems to be constantly relevant, in one manner or another, to American society today. If I had to choose one, that would be it.