Skirball exhibit of Stanley Kubrick’s early press photography offers a prelude to the iconic director’s film career

By Brian Marks

The Skirball Cultural Center’s “Through a Different Lens” highlights intimate and candid moments captured by filmmaker Stanley Kurbrick when he was a young and budding magazine photographer

Among the greatest film directors of the 20th century, Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) occupies a special place in the hearts of cinephiles. He explored the darkest recesses of the mind and the awe-inspiring depths of the universe in films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining.”

The Skirball Cultural Center’s current exhibit, “Through a Different Lens,” charts Kubrick’s growth from precocious photographer to seasoned magazine veteran, all before he would go on to revolutionize cinema.

The exhibit covers a short period in Kubrick’s life, from 1945 to 1950, when he sold his photographs to the picture-heavy Look magazine in his teens and early ’20s. A staggering 15,000 of the future director’s images were culled from around 300,000 photos from the magazine’s archives.

“I went through them several times, actually,” says Sean Corcoran, curator of print and photographs at the Museum for the City of New York, where Look’s archives are housed. He and his collaborator Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design, selected a few hundred photographs for a book they wrote and edited, before using half those images for the intimate exhibition.

The earliest black-and-white photos from 1945 show Kubrick finding visual intrigue in seemingly hum-drum scenes, such as his high school teacher’s dramatic recitation of Shakespeare in the classroom.

“I can’t think of many other examples where teenagers who were still in high school were selling pictures to magazines,” muses Corcoran, who chatted about the exhibit over the phone. “He was pretty young, but already had an eye and a certain amount of ambition.”

Many of the exhibit’s images are at least partially staged or suggested by Kubrick, foreshadowing the attention to detail he would display in his feature films. Kubrick’s first published photo — a newspaper vendor looking dejected after the news of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945 — was shot after he asked the man to try to look sadder.

Corcoran and Albrecht highlight the disconnect between Kubrick’s newsier photos and images that were unlikely to ever be published by placing issues of Look with his published pictures spread open under glass cases, whereas many of the unpublished images are hung on the walls. The magazine photos are impeccably framed, but the pictures Kubrick made for himself are more abstract and experimental.

“He’s making the pictures he knows the magazine needs to publish, and occasionally he’s making pictures for himself,” explains Corcoran. “When it comes to the pictures he made for himself, I think he’s looking at a quirkier or darker side of the human condition.”

He points out a series of pictures of circus performers, the most striking of which is a large portrait of an elderly tattooed man whose nipples are pierced and weighed down with thick metal rings. The performer gazes directly into the camera, and the unusual image seems to prefigure the future work of the great photographer Diane Arbus.

“He had to know that this would never be published by the magazine, but there’s clearly a curiosity about who this person is,” says Corcoran. “There’s a certain quality about some of the pictures that were never published that I think shows his interest in the way humans behave and interact with each other, which maybe wasn’t right for a family-friendly magazine at the time, but he couldn’t resist making those pictures.”

Another large print from a series on the boxer Rocky Graziano shows the middleweight champion in profile while showering as he turns to stare at Kubrick’s camera during the intimate moment, something which would have been too racy for Look.

The adult subject matter of some of Kubrick’s photos seems like a logical stepping stone for the auteur who would depict the “ultraviolence” of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” or the dehumanizing military slaughter of “Full Metal Jacket.” Other assignments find him photographing public figures such as Leonard Bernstein and Montgomery Clift, which may have given him an early taste of how to manage the actors in his films.

The exhibit’s most iconic image, of a scientist at Columbia University holding a glowing tube while wearing sunglasses, could be mistaken for an outtake of Peter Sellers as the eponymous character in his apocalyptic comedy “Dr. Strangelove.”

After 1950, Kubrick would largely leave behind still photography for his ultimate artistic ambition: the moving picture. He began making documentary shorts the following year, and he would go from making rickety war and noir films in the mid-1950s to accomplished epics and generation-defining films made with large crews. But all of it, this exhibit reminds us, began with a young man and his camera.

“Through a Different Lens” continues through March 8 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Museum admission is $7 to $12 or free on Thursdays. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org for venue hours.

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