Book Review–Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (2013)

still 2013

Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography
David S. Shields
Release Date: June 19, 2013
The University of Chicago Press
Hardcover, 401 pages

In the opening pages of his recent book on American silent film photography, Still, David S. Shields estimates that over eighty percent of the silent features produced within the first three decades of filmmaking in this country have been lost. Whether through neglect, ignorance, or the ravages of time and deteriorating film stock, a great deal of the motion pictures which formed the foundation of modern-day Hollywood are now gone, becoming mere footnotes in history. Some are remembered solely through anecdotes or reminiscences from those who saw or participated in the productions. But a select few of these lost movies live on, in part, through still photographs and star portraits taken during the filming of those pictures.

The genesis of those still photographs and the photographers who turned the concept into an art form are the focus of Still. In an exhaustively-researched tome (touted as the first history of the medium of silent film photography), Shields examines not only the important “still men” who planted the roots of film photography itself, but the constructs that arose from their work: namely, the idea of “glamour” and the rise of the “star” through the Hollywood publicity machine’s appropriation of movie images and portraiture.

While to studios, the inherent purpose of a movie still was (and, largely to this day, remains) the need to publicize that motion picture in theaters, trade magazines, and through other advertising means, filmmakers soon realized the importance that stills played in capturing the innate artistry of a particular film. As Shields explains, this led to the creation of the first “movie magazine,”  Motion Picture Story, in 1911 (incidentally, this magazine was founded by J. Stuart Blackton, a man perhaps better remembered today for his contributions to the early days of film animation). The idea of a film fan magazine soon would become an indispensable one to the industry, whipping up public fervor and contributing to the growing mythos behind the “movie star.”

Both the mechanics of silent film photography and the creative forces behind the images are addressed within Still, with individual chapters and sections devoted to some of the most talented photographers to emerge from the period, among them James E. Woodbury (collaborator with D.W. Griffith); Jack Freulich (closely associated with Universal); Arthur Rice (who spent his brief career at Metro, one of the studios that would be enfolded into MGM in 1924); and M.I. Boris (the go-to still photographer for Paramount). Interestingly, Shields also devotes an entire chapter to Lillian Gish, whom he credits as possessing “the acutest eye for camera talent of any cinematic performer of the era,” for not only was Gish a gifted performer, but she was adept at finding talented photographers to work on her films. Gish championed a number of notable artists, beginning in 1919 with James Abbe and continuing with her collaborations with Charles Albin, Kenneth Alexander, Henry Waxman, and Milton Brown, all of whom produced iconic images of the actress in some of her most famous silent-era roles.

Nearly a dozen of these renowned portraits and on-set shots of Gish are among the more than one hundred and fifty images that are reproduced in StillThe photographs that accompany Shields’ analysis are, by and large, well-chosen. Though the book is populated with the requisite shots of big (and expected) names like Gish, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Louise Brooks, it is far from a paean to the most famous actors of the day. Equal attention is paid to some less-remembered denizens of silent Hollywood such as Alla Nazimova, Marie Prevost, Gilda Gray, and May McAvoy, alongside many others. Most of the images are crisp and clear reproductions, and though some of the defects in the original images are present here, the flaws do not detract from the sheer wonder of seeing these photographs in print. [Speaking of the stills themselves: it is worth noting that in the book, Bert Longworth’s famed still shot of John Gilbert and a reclining Greta Garbo from Flesh and the Devil (1926) has been rotated to the left–a minor complaint, true, but it is nonetheless somewhat jarring to see such a familiar image presented from a different angle.]

Though the book includes a wealth of lovely photos, if you’re looking for a mere glossy photographic brick to adorn your coffee table, you’d be best served to look elsewhere. No simple picture book, Still instead serves as an in-depth reference guide to the history of an art form. While admittedly Shields’ prose sometimes lapses into the overly didactic (in the author’s defense, he is an academic, and he’s produced a suitably academic text), Still remains an entertaining and thoroughly intriguing anthology of the artists who captured the early movies in photographs, complete with some breathtakingly gorgeous examples of their craft.

True Classics thanks The University of Chicago Press for sending us a copy of Still for the purposes of this review.

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One thought on “Book Review–Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (2013)

  1. This is a shocking statement: “…eighty percent of the silent features produced within the first three decades of filmmaking in this country have been lost.” I had no idea!

    “Still” sounds like a marvelous book to add to one’s Hollywood reading collection. I’d never heard of it if you hadn’t reviewed it. Thanks!

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