A grand master of filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick is celebrated for the consistency of his vision, a fierce dedication to total control, and mastery of the cinematic medium. With an oeuvre comprised of thirteen features and a few early short films, he left an indelible legacy and an influence that only continues to grow.
There is probably not a single person on this planet who hasn’t heard of his cinematic genius, yet, Stanley Kubrick's photography is a revelation for most people. Before he ventured into filmmaking, Kubrick spent five years as a photographer for Look magazine, which he had joined in 1945 aged 17. Specializing in slice-of-life picture essays that reported on the highs and lows of New York City and its inhabitants, he demonstrated an early talent for capturing a revealing exchange or sly glance that speaks volumes.
The current exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York unveils the iconic director’s formative years behind the camera lens, charting a creative journey from being a photojournalist to becoming a cinematic legend.
Titled Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, the exhibition highlights a consistency of his creative vision that turned him into an icon.
The first photo that Stanley Kubrick ever sold to Look magazine in 1945 was an image of a dejected newsstand vendor the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After graduating from William Howard Taft high school in 1946, he joined the magazine as an apprentice.
After his first extended assignment, Life and Love on the New York Subway, he began working on more extended, narrative-based assignments, ranging from quirky stories about an innovative paddy wagon and pampered city dogs to extended profiles of celebrities. He covered a range of post-war American entertainment, from publishing and movies to popular music and television, and created a range of celebrity profiles, including the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, television personality Faye Emerson, and boxer Rocky Graziano, among others.
At the end of his tenure at the magazine in 1950, he started working on his first independently produced documentary Day of the Fight that premiered the next year.
Sometimes glamorous and sometimes gritty, the work he produced for the magazine was far ahead of his time. Although often in sync with the magazine's populist perspective, his images managed to indulge Kubrick's idiosyncratic taste for the eccentric and the offbeat.
In the five years he worked for the magazine, he laid the technical and aesthetic foundations for his cinematography, honing his skills as both a storyteller and an image maker.
This revelatory exhibition explores the formative years Kubrick spent as a photographer for Look magazine, charting his first steps towards becoming one of the best and most important film directors of the 20th century. The show features over 130 photos from the Museum’s extensive Look magazine archive, all captured during his tenure there.
Showing the grit and the glamour of the city, the images show the city's nightclubs, street scenes, and sporting events, at the same time providing an insight into the pathos of ordinary life with a remarkable sophistication.
The exhibited photos will be accompanied by the very Look magazines they appeared in, providing the journalistic context in which Kubrick’s photos were received by the general public.
At the very beginning, the exhibition charts four key themes that shaped Kubrick’s early works as a photographer, but have also re-appeared many times throughout his career: the looking, mastering the system, media savvy and visual style.
Kubrick’s advanced ways of seeing and a fascination with human relationships could be observed in the photographs depicting unsuspecting subjects engaged in intimate interactions or caught others in the act of looking.
While working for Look, the artist encountered a variety of complex organizations, whose impact on the American life has been obsessing postwar observers. These experiences were formative for his future success in the motion picture industry.
Exploring media for the magazine, he had many opportunities to see the production process on the set, but also learn the ways celebrities crafted their public personas.
Lastly, Kubrick honed important skills such as framing, composition, and lighting compelling, often imitating the brooding style of the Hollywood film noirs he admired.
Chronologically proceeding through Stanley Kubrick’s assignments for the magazine, the exhibition frames the celebrated filmmaker as an artist who investigated the powerful narrative capabilities of photography.
It culminates with an epilogue that reveals links between Kubrick the photographer and Kubrick the director. Exploring themes of teenage love, teenage dating, and marital jealousy, he directed proto-cinematic articles by posing his subjects in his photographs.
In addition to the magazine issues that featured this body of work, this section also includes his first film, the Cartier documentary Day of the Fight that relied on his photographic work as a storyboard. The practice of storyboarding from photographs remained a constant throughout his career.
Another highlight from this section is an excerpt from his second feature film Killer’s Kiss from 1955, making visible the influence of the film noir aesthetic and themes that he explored in his previous photo work.
All fans of the like and oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick will now have a wonderful opportunity to discover a lesser-known part of his career, yet not less-brilliant.
Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York, comments:
The photographs on display in this exhibition are works of art in and of themselves, and the hints they offer regarding Kubrick’s future success make them all the more fascinating. We are proud to have put together a show that reveals as much about post-WWII New York City as it does to celebrate the perspective of an uncannily talented young photographer who would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most accomplished artists.
The exhibition Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs is on view at the Museum of the City of New York until October 2018.
Editors’ Tip: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, Through a Different Lens by Luc Sante
Through a Different Lens reveals the keen and evocative vision of a burgeoning creative genius in a range of feature stories and images, from the everyday folk at the laundromat to a day in the life of a debutant, from a trip to the circus to Columbia University. Featuring around 300 images, many previously unseen, as well as rare Look magazine tear sheets, this release coincides with a major show at the Museum of the City of New York and includes an introduction by noted photography critic Luc Sante.
Featured images: Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs book by Taschen. All images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.