Picturing the Stars
Ruth Harriet Louise (1903–1940),
Hollywood Photographer for MGM
In collaboration with the John Kobal Foundation and as part of the Photo Oxford Festival – whose theme this year is ‘Women and Photography: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen’ – this online exhibition presents a selection of photographs by Ruth Harriet Louise, photographer for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio in Hollywood during the second half of the 1920s. Organiser Philip Grover introduces the material, while leading scholar of Hollywood photography Robert Dance writes a new essay on the life and career of Louise, alongside photographs representing the full range of her work:
Known for its panoply of acting talent – for having ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ – the Hollywood film studio MGM was at the peak of its powers in the late 1920s. Among its roster of employees were not only hundreds of actors, directors and production staff, but also the photographers who recorded life on set and whose still images promoted the stars in fan magazines around the world, itself a burgeoning part of the film industry. From mid-1925 to the end of 1929, MGM’s photography studio was run by Ruth Harriet Louise (1903–1940), a talented photographer and an exceptional woman in an era when film production was largely overseen and controlled by men. During her short but influential career, Louise set the style for the Hollywood studio and photographed many of its greatest stars, including Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and Norma Shearer. The selection of photographs reproduced here is drawn from the archive of the John Kobal Foundation, leading source of early Hollywood photography, which enables an overview of the fascinating and diverse career of Ruth Harriet Louise, while pictures of Louise with her large format camera offer a rare glimpse of the photographer at work.
‘Ruth Harriet Louise: An Essay’, by Robert Dance
Ruth Harriet Louise has the distinction of being the only woman who worked as a still or portrait photographer in Hollywood during the great years of studio film production, circa 1920–1950. She was distinctive not only by gender but also youth, for she was only twenty-two when she started work at MGM. In 1925 MGM was a brand new studio, recently amalgamated as the brain-child of Marcus Loew, owner of the powerful Loew’s theatre chain. He wanted to control product as well as seats, so in an extraordinary series of mergers he combined his small production company, Metro Pictures, with Goldwyn Studios and Louis B. Mayer Productions to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Louis B. Mayer took charge of film production at the former Goldwyn facility in Culver City, and set out an ambitious plan to release a new feature every week. To do this he needed more performers, directors, producers, costume designers, writers, technicians, and still and portrait photographers. MGM inherited Clarence Sinclair Bull, one of Hollywood’s finest photographers, who had been working at Goldwyn. But Bull found himself overwhelmed by managing the team of more than a dozen still photographers, one for every set, and he could not keep up with the demanding work of making portraits of the stars. These portraits were valuable currency as they translated readily to fan magazine covers, and were the source of much of the seemingly endless stream of studio publicity. Bull needed help in the portrait studio.
Louise was born Ruth Goldstein in New York in 1903, the daughter of a rabbi. When she was a teenager her family moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, when her father took a new congregation. Even in her early days on the east coast she had a connection to Hollywood: her first cousin, Carmel Myers, was a film star. Whether or not she harboured early dreams of working in California, she had always wanted to be a professional photographer, and after high school she set up a photography studio at a music store in town. When her cousin visited, Louise naturally made portraits. Myers was impressed, and suggested that Louise might be able to find work in Hollywood.
Louise made the long journey west and Myers introduced her to Mayer. He seems to have hired her on the spot – but asked her to photograph a leading lady, Paulette Duval, so he (and the actress) could judge her work. She passed the test, and beginning in the summer of 1925 she commanded the portrait studio at MGM, where she photographed great early stars such as John Gilbert, Lon Chaney and Ramon Novarro.
Only a few months after Louise joined the studio a young Swedish actress, Greta Garbo, was hired, and she first came to Louise’s portrait studio in September 1925. When Garbo’s first American film, Torrent, was released the next winter, MGM had a new star. Garbo worked with Louise throughout her first four years in Hollywood, and Louise had as much influence in shaping Garbo’s public image as any director or cinematographer. Louise also took some of the first portraits of another ingénue, Joan Crawford, who would also become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.
Little is known about Louise’s life and working methods, although many of her beautifully printed photographs survive as well as thousands of original negatives. She seems to have been extremely popular with her subjects and often photographed them using a flattering soft focus derived from pictorialism, a photographic style current early in the last century. She liked to work with music playing in the background and made selections to relax or amuse her sitters. Louise shot almost all of her portraits in a third-floor studio reached by a narrow staircase. It was a difficult location to reach with heavy costumes and unwieldy props, but it afforded abundant natural light that could sometimes eliminate the need for the hot lights that famously baked performers on sets and in portrait galleries.
Although Louise made terrific portraits of Norma Shearer, the unofficial first lady of MGM after her marriage to producer Irving Thalberg, it was ultimately Shearer who doomed the photographer’s tenure at the studio. Shearer saw herself as a sex goddess and sought the juicy roles that had made Garbo and Crawford legends. Her husband preferred casting Shearer as an elegant lady. Secretly, Shearer visited the private studio of George Hurrell, and was so taken with his work – sharp focus and strong black and white contrasts – that she demanded her husband hire him as MGM’s portraitist. On the last day of 1929 Louise was out of work.
She had married director Leigh Jason the year before, and in 1932 had a child. She continued to take private commissions, photographing among others Myrna Loy and Anna Sten. But she never held another studio position. Her brother, Mark Sandrich, followed his sister to Hollywood and quickly became a successful director, best known for Top Hat and Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A second child was born in the mid-1930s, but then tragedy struck and her eldest died at six of leukemia. Louise became pregnant again but died in childbirth in 1940. She was thirty-seven. Obituaries listed her as Ruth Jason, and few mentioned her magnificent career at MGM, where she had a hand in creating iconic and enduring images of many of the last century’s motion picture legends.
Acknowledgements and Credits
Online exhibition organised by Philip Grover.
Essay written by Robert Dance.
Photographs reproduced courtesy of the John Kobal Foundation.
Organised in collaboration with Photo Oxford Festival 2020.
Special thanks to Simon Crocker and Robert Dance; and to Danielle Battigelli and Hannah Pye.
Robert Dance is co-author of the most detailed study to date of Ruth Harriet Louise, which examines her work as being central to the developing aesthetic of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’: Robert Dance and Bruce Robertson, Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002). His most recent book, published in collaboration with the John Kobal Foundation, features photographs by Ruth Harriet Louise as well as other leading Hollywood photographers of the period, including Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell: Robert Dance, Hollywood Icons: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation (Woodbridge, Suffolk: ACC Editions, 2016). You can read more about this book online here (John Kobal Foundation). You can order the book online here (ACC Art Books).