Stanley Kubrick’s importance as a film director is widely recognised; his career as a Look magazine photographer is not nearly as well-known. In 1945, at the age of 17 and still in high school, Kubrick sold his first picture to Look. He was soon hired onto the pictorial magazine’s staff where he produced numerous photo essays over five years. In the 1990s, curator Rainer Crone, with Kubrick’s encouragement, tracked down the negatives that Kubrick had made for Look, the whereabouts of which were unknown to Kubrick and for which Kubrick no longer held the copyright. The rediscovered negatives resulted in a travelling exhibition in 1999, and in this book, Drama & Shadows: Photographs 1945-1950.
The pictures collected in Drama & Shadows reveal Kubrick’s enthusiasm both for exploring his environment with photography (as seen in pictures taken on the New York subway using a concealed cable-release pulled up his sleeve), and for exploring photography through manipulation of his environment (as evidenced in the numerous staged and lit pictures, often using his friends as actors). Kubrick clearly loved making pictures; he loved watching people’s faces, watching people move through their surroundings, and watching people perform for his camera. The same visual curiosity informs both a series of images of a young Leonard Bernstein clowning on a dock and the brief sequence of pictures, “Kids fighting in the street”. The pictures in the book read overwhelmingly as a love letter to New York (though the book also includes work from Chicago, Florida and Portugal). As a view onto the city and its surroundings in the late 1940s, or as a monograph of the work of a very good press photographer, the book is fine; the pictures are compelling and the reproductions are first-rate.
Unfortunately, the organisation of Drama & Shadows and the written commentary accompanying the photographs conspire to divorce these pictures from the meaningful contexts that might have drawn a reader to the book in the first place. These pictures were recovered because they were produced by Stanley Kubrick. Under what circumstances would an unknown Look photographer’s work be published so handsomely? Crone justifies the photographs by arguing that Kubrick was a sort of savant who was autonomously redefining photography while laying the groundwork for the allegorical films that he would make. But while the photographs are very good, they are not ground-breaking; Kubrick is not recognised as either an influential photojournalist or an outsider artist. And while Kubrick’s pictures do exemplify his dramaturgical impulses, they are not unique in the photography of that time in doing so.
Crone is mistaken to see the Kubrick who surreptitiously photographed subway riders or zoo-goers in 1946 as the same photographer who created the contrived photo essay on debutante and would-be actress Betsy von Furstenberg in 1950. Had the book been organised chronologically rather than thematically (Metropolitan Life, Entertainment, Celebrities, Human Behavior), we would have been able to witness the development of a photographic sensibility that shifted from a street photography with a focus on hardship and alienation to a conventional and increasingly heavily lit and staged magazine story form emphasising glamour, even in backstage settings. The pictures become increasingly efficient over time as Kubrick masters his allegorical language.
A second missed opportunity is to see these pictures in the context in which they were published. What did these pictures look like in the magazine layout? Putting aside Kubrick’s film-making legacy, this archive of a post-war picture press photographer’s work over five years offers a rare window into the publishing conventions of that moment. In the book’s presentation, it is not clear whether some or all of the images were published in Look or whether pictures identified with a story were actually published in that story. There is no sense as to which pictures were selected because they served the magazine’s needs, and which ones were selected – either for Look or for Drama & Shadows – because Kubrick himself found them successful or satisfying. As a result we have a book of beautiful, untethered photographs.