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Stanley Kubrick, the teenage photographer

Stanley Kubrick, the teenage photographer

Fans will delight in spotting the director’s trademarks

Fans will delight in spotting the director’s trademarks

Nicholas Barber | June 7th 2018

Before Stanley Kubrick was Stanley Kubrick, probably the most revered of all American film directors, he was Stanley Kubrick the teenage New York photographer. Born in the Bronx in 1928, he left high school in 1945, and went straight to “Look”, a magazine which boasted “reader interest for yourself, for your wife, for your private secretary, for your office boy”. Two years later, the magazine included a short profile of the 19-year-old “veteran”, accompanied by an unsmiling headshot. “In his spare time,” notes the article, “Stanley experiments with cinematography and dreams of the day when he can make documentary films.” 

At “Look”, he was paid to prowl New York’s tenements, subways, racetracks and colleges, often using a hidden camera to capture the hardscrabble lives of Gotham’s inhabitants. His portraits of sport and showbusiness stars have a similar air of spontaneity and candour. “By the time I was 21,” he said later, “I had four years of seeing how things worked in the world. I think if I had gone to college I would never have become a director.”

Many of Kubrick’s “Look” photographs are on display in the Museum of the City of New York, and over 300 of them have been collected in “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs”, a Taschen book which is almost as hefty as the alien monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Even if you’d never heard of the director, you could relish it as a vivid, evocative chronicle of New York in the late 1940s, when the metropolis hummed with promise, and when absolutely everyone, it seems, knew how to dress in style. But for Kubrick fans, there’s fun to be had in searching for the great auteur’s trademarks in the work of his industrious and precociously talented younger self.

 

From “Truman is a New Dealer, Too”, June 26th, 1945

Kubrick was only 17 when “Look” first published one of his photographs, a striking if sentimental close-up of a downcast newspaper vendor taken the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the introduction to “Through a Different Lens” says, “Kubrick later admitted he urged the salesman to look more depressed than he was for dramatic effect - an early example of his ability to elicit a performance and stage a scene.” In the following decades, he would become notorious for demanding numberless retakes until he got the effect he wanted, hence “Eyes Wide Shut” holds the record for being the longest ever continuous film shoot.

 

From “Naked City”, July 31st, 1947

According to “Through a Different Lens”, Jules Dassin’s “Naked City” was “the first major American movie shot mostly on real locations in many decades”. The film’s noirish aesthetic and title were inspired by Weegee, whom Kubrick would later hire as the on-set photographer for “Dr. Strangelove”. And the film itself would influence Kubrick’s own hardboiled crime dramas, “Killer’s Kiss” and “The Killing”. But perhaps Kubrick was influenced even more by the figure of Dassin. While most of the photos in this unpublished selection emphasise the hustle and bustle of movie-making - the crowds, the cameras, the cables - the film’s director stands above it all, vaguely Mussolini-ish, relaxed and confident that his smallest gesture will be seen and acted upon. This, Kubrick may have thought, is the job for me.

 

From “Columbia University” May 11th, 1948

Any idea what’s going on here? No? Luckily, a “Look” caption explains: “Professor Eugene T. Booth (left), executive director of the university’s nuclear physics research center, posing with fellow engineers on the partly finished cyclotron to be used for atom research.” This bizarre and almost unbelievable photo is the most quintessentially Kubrickian picture in the whole of “Through a Different Lens”: the professors in smart suits, dwarfed by their impossibly powerful technology, are the forebears of the complacent scientists and generals in “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” who risk being annihilated by their own futuristic creations. And who are the two casually dressed men lurking at the very bottom of the picture? Kubrick’s films are usually puzzlers.

 

From “Prizefighter”, January 18th, 1949

Kubrick’s first film was a 16-minute boxing documentary entitled “Day of the Fight”, featuring Walter Cartier, a middleweight he had already photographed for a seven-page “Look” article, “Prizefighter”. Kubrick went onto stage a chiaroscuro boxing match in his thriller, “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), so there is a strong link between his various boxing-related “Look” assignments and his subsequent big-screen career. His most intriguing photograph of Cartier has nothing to do with boxing, though. Instead, it appears to show the young fighter - a Greek god in saggy underpants - both asleep in bed and looming over his own prone body. The simple explanation is that Cartier shared a room with his twin brother Vincent. But the eerie image of the two identical men, both with their eyes closed as if they’re dreaming of the other, evokes the final sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which Keir Dullea’s astronaut, marooned “beyond the infinite”, keeps catching sight of his own doppelgangers.

 

From “Philadelphia’s First Beaux Arts Ball”, September 13th, 1949

Most of Kubrick’s “Look” photographs are populated by the working and middle classes in high-street clothes, but sometimes he called in on opulent nightclubs and parties, where the lavish spectacle, eroticism and bold surrealism foreshadowed the bowler-hatted droogs in “A Clockwork Orange”, the high-society gambling dens in “Barry Lyndon”, the Overlook Hotel’s July 4th Ball in “The Shining”, and the masked orgy in “Eyes Wide Shut”. This fabulous shot is from a “come as modern art” party held at the Hotel Broadwood by the Contemporary Art Association of Philadelphia.

 

From “Rosemary Williams - Showgirl”, March, 1949

An unpublished profile of Rosemary Williams, a chorus girl hoping for her big break on Broadway, depicts her at a party and a cafe, in a producer’s office and a TV studio, but always looking stunningly glamorous. Kubrick would never be averse to photographing svelte beauties in bikinis (see also Sue Lyon in “Lolita”), but in this selfie, with its broad, cinema-screen dimensions, he is also photographing himself, a dark spectral presence who emerges from the floral wallpaper to haunt Williams like a spook from “The Shining”. Kubrick was 21 at the time, but, with his heavy suit, owlish ringed eyes and intense concentration, he could be a decade or two older.

Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs Museum of the City of New York until October 28th. The book, published by Taschen, is out now