This week the Maggie Semple team were lucky enough to be shown around the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits, by its curator Terrence Pepper. On display are a collection of nearly 70 vintage photographs, on loan for the duration of the exhibition from the John Kobal Foundation, which depict Hollywood history from the 1920’s to the 1960’s.
The images, taken largely by male photographers in the employment of the big studios, show the major stars of Hollywood history, including Lillian Gish, Fred Astaire and Marilyn Monroe. The picture that caught our eye, however, was a 1929 image of Nina Mae McKinney taken by Ruth Harriet Louise, the only woman to run a studio photo gallery at the time. The photo shows McKinney, the only black actress of the silent era, looking enigmatically away from the camera. She is wearing a 1920’s style black fringed dress embroidered with two dice and glass grapes are wound into her hair; she is mysterious, inaccessible and exotic with just an air of danger – exactly the image of her the studio wished to project.
Nicknamed ‘The Black Garbo’, McKinney was an American actress who started her performing career doing bike stunts in shows in her home town in South Carolina. A self-taught actress and dancer, she moved to New York at 15 to pursue a career on the stage and she soon landed the principle role in 1929 film Hallelujah! Although the film featured an all African-American cast her role was important as her facial features formed the framework for what would be desired of black actresses for the foreseeable future. Despite appearing in five feature films and countless appearances on international stages and television shows, the racism prevailing in America at the time meant her studio, MGM, were reluctant to star her in mainstream films or showcase her as a glamorous sex symbol like they did with white film actresses.
This makes the image in the exhibition even more interesting. As Ruth Harriet Louise, the photographer, was also contracted to MGM the photos she took portrayed the stars as the studio wanted them to be seen, in this case, beautiful but full of African mystery and exoticism. However, as the studios only employed one chief photographer at a time, and often for a number of years, it wasn’t uncommon for the actors and photographers to build a close relationship. Louise worked for MGM between 1925 and 1930, when she left to get married, and so would have been McKinney’s main, possibly only, portrait photographer. Louise came from a family with a Hollywood background (her cousin was actress Carmel Myers and her brother was legendary director Michael Sandrich) and during her short career took over 100,000 photographs of Hollywood’s major stars. She is regarded as one of the most underrated Hollywood glamour photographers and is seen by many as just as artistically brilliant as renowned photographers such as Hurrell Snr, Evans and Witzel.
Glamour of the Gods: National Portrait Gallery
7th July – 23rd October 2011