Joel W. Finler’s book, Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios, is something of a rarity in that it ably serves two completely disparate functions simultaneously, acting as both an academically useful historical study and an easily-perusable coffee table book. As a historical text, Finler offers a surprisingly thorough examination of the stills photographer’s various roles within the studio system of Hollywood from 1910 to the 1950s. As a coffee table book, Finler has packed the book with hundreds of rare and unusual movie stills, the majority of which reside in his personal collection.
In his detailed survey of the stills photographer’s history, Finler reveals that the perception of the stills photographer in Hollywood as merely the person who stages celebrity portraits or captures scene stills for promotional use is severely limiting to our understanding of these individuals and their artistry. For their role in Hollywood extended well beyond the studio as they might be expected to do fashion shoots, produce collages, generate poster art, or venture to stars’ homes to capture some candid photographs. Finler’s examination of the role of these underappreciated artists within film history focuses on a handful of both American and English photographers, as well as the directors and stars with whom they worked closely. And through the chronicling of their efforts behind the scenes of the film industry, Finler impresses upon the reader the notion that stills photographers were among the hardest working folks in Hollywood not to be recognized for their efforts.
Originally published in 1995, this new edition of Hollywood Movie Stills, now available from Titan Books, includes an expanded reference bibliography as well as some additions/corrections to the original text, including an expanded list of stills photographers employed by the studios. But more importantly, the book now features 30 additional pages of photographs and captions, with many additional stills provided by collector Martin Matheter.
The variety of stills collected herein range from the most glamorous portraits of stars such as Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard to behind-the-scenes stills, including one capturing the filming of the iconic MGM lion, to the gaudiest of publicity materials, exemplified by the image of Sophia Loren that introduces this article. Each still collected here is accompanied by a rather thorough capture that not only explains the contents of the image, but often identifies the photographer who captured it as well. The caption of one unusual photograph that struck me in particular identifies the image as a scene still from an alternate ending of Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971). In it, Allen appears in blackface after supposedly being caught in a bomb blast!