The Kubrick Files Ep. 4 – Kubrick’s Photography

Before Stanley Kubrick began directing movies, he was a professional photographer for Look Magazine. His photos show his keen eye for composition and storytelling. Kubrick had once said that it was his experience as a photographer that often helped him as a filmmaker, so let’s take a look at Kubrick’s career in photography.

On April 12th, 1945, Kubrick was out on the streets of New York City and happened to pass a newspaper stand. The headline that day was an important one because, it was the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Kubrick had just received a Kodak Monitor 620 camera as a gift and managed to capture the scene of a distraught vendor amongst the newspapers whose headlines read “F.D.R. Dead.” Kubrick liked how the picture turned out and thought he might be able to sell it to a magazine. He had been an avid reader of several camera magazines, so he was already familiar with how to go about submitting a photo (Quiz Kid 37).  To his delight, his photo was accepted by a few magazines who were interested in publishing it. Look Magazine offered more than the other magazines, so Kubrick decided to go with them. Kubrick was paid twenty-five dollars for the photo and, on June 26th 1945, it was printed in the magazine (Kubrick Exhibit).

Kubrick would later admit that he had persuaded the vendor into giving him the emotion he wanted (Kubrick Archive). Kubrick had around nine hundred of his photos appear in Look Magazine between 1945 and 1951 (Kubrick Exhibit). A lot of these photos were part of assigned photo essays for the magazine. One essay titled “How people look to the monkeys,” had Kubrick work with the zoo at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The monkey house had an indoor and outdoor area. While the monkeys were in the outdoor area, Kubrick [quote] “stationed himself in the indoor cage with his lens poked through the food slit” so that he may capture the monkeys with the spectators in the background. Reportedly, the monkeys were very interested in the camera, but quickly lost interest once Kubrick let them look into it (Quiz Kid 41).

Another essay he did was a series on the New York subway. In order to get these pictures, Kubrick rode the subway “between midnight and six A. M.” This way he could not only capture less inhibited subjects, but he could show a side of the subway that many never see. Because the light was too low and because the train rides were bumpy, Kubrick could only take a photo when the subway stopped. To compensate for the low light he had to use a longer exposure, which would suffer extreme motion blur if the camera or subject moved at all during the exposure. He would pick his subject and aim his camera at them during the ride and when the train finally stopped—click. For these photos, “Kubrick used a Contax and took the pictures at 1/8th of a second” with an F-stop of 2.8” (Quiz Kid 152). He didn’t use any extra lighting except for one photo on a flight of stairs where a flash was used—possibly this one. And because there was such little lighting on the train, he also tripled the development time to make the photos bright enough. He said, “I wanted to retain the mood of the subway, so I used natural light” (Quiz Kid 41).

Around half of Kubrick’s photo essays are from his own ideas and one of these was a series of photos in a dentist’s waiting room (Quiz Kid 40). Kubrick had visited the dentist and he noticed the concerned look on everyone’s face as they waited for their turn. No one likes going to the dentist and the anxiety on the faces of the subjects of these candids is something we can all relate to.

All of these shots were quote/unquote “stolen” – most people didn’t even know they were being photographed. For these photos, Kubrick wouldn’t frame the scene, he would let his medium format camera hang from a strap around his neck and he had a cable that ran to a shutter control in his pocket. He wouldn’t look through the viewfinder—when he found a good subject, he would just aim his body toward them and press the button in his pocket (Variety).

Not all of Kubrick’s photos were truly candid, however. In one series, he posed a friend of his with a woman named Toba Metz, for a scene of a couple in the subway. She would become Kubrick’s first wife shortly after these photos were taken.

This would be among his first experiences working with performers to elicit the specific emotion or mood he wanted to portray.

Another staged photo series—his very first photo series for Look Magazine—show a young man trying to flirt with a young woman in a cinema. The piece was called “A Short Short in a Movie Balcony.”

Although the photos looked candid, the young man and woman were actually friends of Kubrick and the cinema they shot in was closed at the time. Kubrick even had his little sister sit in as an audience member. Reportedly, he directed the scene by giving instructions to the young man and the young woman separately. The young woman was supposed to slap the flirtatious young man, but when Kubrick took her aside, he told her to really slap the young man hard, which provoked a genuine reaction for the camera (Duncan 19).

Kubrick had several of these photo series published in the magazine and when he finally graduated from Taft High School, he was offered a full-time job at [quote] “$50 a week” (Vanity Fair). 

Kubrick biographer Vincent LoBrutto said, “He always took more shots than he could use for one of his photo essays and then chose those that were most impressive for use in the photo sequence. There are no throwaway shots in a Kubrick photo essay; each shot is carefully composed; he made every shot count” (Kubrick Archives).

It’s interesting that this practice—which he has earned a reputation for in filmmaking—started as far back as his days as a professional photographer.

Kubrick once said about filmmaking, “I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want” and it’s possible that this has a lot to do with his custom of shooting a lot. The more you shoot, the more choice you have and the more you can refine what it is you’re looking for. Of course, some would argue against the merits of this exercise, but it seemed to work well for Kubrick.

Within two years of working for Look, he was sent on more high-profile assignments. One of these was on Frank Sinatra during a trip to Richmond, Virginia. For this series, Kubrick concentrated more on the faces of Sinatra’s fans, which was a great way of capturing just how adored the singer was (Variety).  Another assignment had him photographing General and eventual President, Dwight D. Eisenhower during a visit to Columbia University (Variety).

One of Kubrick’s most interesting photo series was on a boxer named Rocky Graziano—this was one year after his story about boxer Walter Cartier, which he also made a short documentary on, but that’s a story for another episode. Rocky Graziano was fresh off a two-year suspension for [quote] “failure to report an attempted $100,000 bribe” (mcny.org). He had grown up in the East Village as a hoodlum who was often found in reform schools and sometimes in prison. He was always a good fighter—in fact he had [quote] “a dishonorable discharge from the army for punching a supervising officer.” He also sold his first boxing medal for $15 (mcny.org).

This series shows both the boxer and the family man (mcny.org). We see him having breakfast with his wife and kids and we also see him training his body for his big fight. This essay reveals the unseen moments in the life of a boxer and it also seems to have an emphasis as the human body as both artistic and utilitarian. The lack of privacy of the male body objectifies it as a tool, built for fighting and used for earning money.

We can see something similar in this series where a nude female is used as a muse for an artist.

All the while Kubrick practiced photography, he was obsessed with cinema. He would see everything no matter if it was supposed to be good or supposed to be bad. A friend of Kubrick’s during this time said Kubrick would [quote] “watch a movie when it was silent, to see how the story was told, and then go back to reading his paper when people started talking” (Duncan 19). He told an interviewer, “I sat there… and I thought, well, I don’t know a goddamn thing about movies, but I know I can make a film better than that” (Vanity Fair).

Working on these assignments forced Kubrick to tell stories using only still images, but it still allowed him to explore the medium. These photo essays don’t necessarily have to show a sequence of events, but can instead capture a setting or event through details, anecdotes, and spontaneity.

Some photos seem to reveal a character or tell a story in a single photo. Here are a few of my favorites:

Look at the composition of this shot:

There’s a beautiful deep-staging even though this was likely a spontaneous image. The setting informs on our understanding of the man. He likely runs the business side of a circus. The low angle – likely to show the high wire – also makes the man look important and his pose seems to tell us that he is in charge.

And then there’s this one:

You can really get a sense of what these kids are like and the setting they inhabit. It looks like they shine shoes for dimes and then buy hot dogs with their earnings. This kid near the center looks like a tough guy despite his smaller stature. These outfits are great.

This one is really interesting:

You can almost feel the movement of this shot. There is a certain tension and claustrophobia in the setting and it sort of conjures up a feeling of finite time quickly running out, despite the image being static. 

I’m not sure about the last one, but the first two images are part of their own series, yet these single images say so much. Here are some of the other images in the circus series:

And here are some of the other images in the shoe shine series:

Perhaps Kubrick’s biggest inspiration was a photographer named Weegee who also had a specialty in street photography. His photography has been said to have a [quote] “noir-ish style—bold, visceral, [and] a little trashy” (Vanity Fair). Here is Weegee and Kubrick on the set of Dr. Strangelove in 1963. [Kubrick Weegee Strangelove set 1963.jpg]

Looking back on his time at Look Magazine in an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick had this to say:

“It was tremendous fun for me at that age, but eventually it began to wear thin, especially since my ultimate ambition had always been to make movies. The subject matter of my Look assignments was generally pretty dumb. I would do stories like: ‘Is an Athlete Stronger Than a Baby?’ photographing a college football player emulating the ‘cute’ positions an 18-month-old child would get into. Occasionally, I had a chance to do an interesting personality story. One of these was about Montgomery Clift, who was at the start of his brilliant career.

Photography certainly gave me the first step up to movies. To make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did, you may not have to know very much about anything else, but you must know about photography” (Michel Ciment Interview).

Thanks for watching! A special thanks to my Patrons over on Patreon. Because of your support I was able to acquire the rare photos of Kubrick first photo series for Look Magazine. And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you! Thanks again for watching!

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