Virgil Apger, photo courtesy of Mary Mallory
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios excelled in most areas of film production, including that of still portrait photography. Several of its head portrait photographers, like Ruth Harriet Louise, George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull, are recognized for their unique style and artistry in creating some of the most iconic portrait photographs in Hollywood history. While not as flashy or dramatic as these lensers, Virgil Apger, MGM’s leading gallery photographer for over 20 years, created classy, understated head shots of leading stars that made them more accessible to the movie-going public.
Born in Grantland, Ind., June 25, 1903, to the local sheriff, Virgil Apger was drawn to motion pictures as a young man, working as an usher and assistant to a projectionist in a local movie theater, per John Kobal’s “The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers.” Apger and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1916, where he worked for six months in an iron foundry business before joining the Marines. During his two-year term, Apger was stationed in Hawaii, Philippines and the Orient.
After discharge, Apger returned to Los Angeles and landed a job in the Mack Sennett Studios location department taking photographs of possible shooting locations. Several months later, Kobal claims that Apger moved over to Paramount Pictures, where he worked as the assistant of gallery head Eugene Robert Richee, his brother-in-law. Apger developed negatives and produced prints for two years. Apger stated, “Gene never left a sitting with fewer than a hundred negatives, which had to be retouched and printed.”
Perhaps bored or needing a break, Apger left Hollywood and worked at an Imperial Valley dairy farm for a year before returning to Paramount in 1929. He joined MGM’s still lab six months later, where he became Bull’s assistant, developing and printing Bull’s work. Apger learned quickly. Within two years, he received a promotion and began shooting candids and behind-the-scenes publicity shots.
Jean Harlow requested Apger to shoot scene stills for her 1935 film “China Seas,” earning him another promotion. From this moment forward, Apger shot all scene stills for her movies. He photographed all scene stills for Jeanette MacDonald films starting with “Naughty Marietta,” and all stills for Greer Garson motion pictures until “That Forsythe Woman.”
Jeanette MacDonald photographed by Virgil Apger, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Apger received accolades for his work. He won Best Posed Production Still for a shot from “Mrs. Miniver” in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Second Annual Still Show in 1942, which recognized outstanding motion picture still photography work in a variety of categories. Apger and other section winners earned gold medals for their work, while Charles (Scotty) Welbourne, Best in Show, earned a trophy for his prize-winning shot.
Apger’s MGM Studio biography relates that he was named head of MGM’s portrait gallery in 1947, which he led for over 20 years, shooting the likes of MacDonald, Esther Williams, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor. Apger designed his own backings for these sittings and often suggested colors and styles of clothing to stars before their sessions. His work appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country, popular because of its low key and simple elegance.
Apger later recounted to Kobal that Joan Crawford and Ava Gardner were great to work with, open to almost anything, and “Esther Williams loved being photographed and fell into a pose with great ease. Hedy Lamarr couldn’t. She thought she knew it all and was forever telling you what to do. She was beautiful – she had great skin texture – but I don’t recall anybody saying that enjoyed shooting her.”
After the studio system collapsed in the late 1950s, Apger focused on shooting scene stills for such films as “Sunday in New York” (1963), “The Money Trap” (1965), and “Point Blank” (1967). Apger retired from MGM in 1969 and joined NBC studios in 1970, where he worked for a short time.
The photographer enjoyed a long life, dying at the age of 90 in San Diego in 1994.