“A close second as the Best Production Still Out-of-Doors, is this beautifully composed and lighted scene from “Song of Bernadette,” 20th-Century-Fox production, by Stax Graves,” Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Over its 87-year-old history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized outstanding work by individuals involved in the filmmaking process. Above-the line-talent like actors and directors have been recognized, along with behind-the-scenes contributors like editors, composers, and production and costume designers. Science and technology experts are also receive awards for their contributions in improving equipment and technology for the filmmaking process.
For four years during the 1940s, AMPAS also presented awards to motion picture studio stills photographers, recognizing their work in producing creative and beautiful visual representations selling motion pictures to consumers. Although the winning stillsmen did not receive Oscar statuettes or gain wide publicity for their awards, this competition was the very first important public acknowledgment of the importance still photographers played in promoting films to the movie-going public.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Photo by Alexander P. Kahle from “Behind the Rising Sun,” Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
As David Shields has written on his site Broadway Photographs, still photographers gained recognition as early as the 1870s for taking portraits of society and theater people. In the 1890s, stillsmen began regularly capturing the work of theater productions as well, and by the mid-teens were essential in promoting moving pictures and film players to the public. Most of the early film photographers were cameramen, capturing stills after finishing lighting and shooting scenes, while outside photography studios produced portraits of stars. By the mid-1920s, studios established their own still galleries to shoot both publicity and scene stills of films. These images were quickly reproduced, and widely distributed to magazines and newspapers to promote the films.
By the early 1930s, stills photographers complained that neither studios nor the public recognized their importance in crafting iconic film images. As early as 1924, the American Cinematographers magazine in its column “Editors’ Lens” suggested forming an association of stills photographers to help establish standards and procedures. The April 1932 International Photographer recommended forming a stills association and organizing photographic salons around the presentation of the Academy Awards, “to draw attention to the stillman and in course of time such recognition would be accorded that some genius would be given the Academy Award for the best still picture of the year.” They thought it would be nice to show up at the Biltmore, “being handed something besides the Bronz razz for being a stillman!” Most important, the group hoped that it would lead to better pay and recognition for their work.
In May 1937, International Photographer began publishing outstanding stills of the month, wherein each studio photographer could submit three samples of his best work on a film. This was to help promote their contributions and to honor the work achieved by all the men. Bertram Longworth, Warner Bros. still photographer and a strong proponent for photographers’ recognition, published his own photography book in December 1937 called “Hold Still, Hollywood,” which promoted his work, and stillmaking in general, as an art.
During the same year, International Photographer published an article called, “Credit Due Stillman,” stating, “…the least credited or discussed photographic group consistently producing stuff of high quality as part of their routine work are studio stillmen. Probably the greatest job of photographic salesmanship in history has been turned out by studio still photographers. The job of merchandising personalities — and particularly the many facets of feminine allure — has been accomplished under a variety of hindrances, censorships and other limitations never encountered by the widely exploited photographic wizards in other fields. The work of studio still photographers in this respect has held to a consistently high average, as evidenced by the record of success in introducing and exploiting personalities — through many years by many individuals.
“Because of the mass production systems of the major studios and the fact that ace photography supplied to publications seldom is credited, many studio stillmen work in anonymity that amounts to oblivion in comparison with the personal publicity accorded photographers in other fields.”
The 1942 winners, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
On the other hand, some studio publicity men found the quality and production of stills work uneven because of lax standards, rush to shoot, older equipment and lack of imagination. John Leroy Johnston, publicity head of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures and a member of the Academy’s Publicity Committee, wrote an article published in the September 1937 International Photographer discussing improving equipment and standards in producing stills, warning that photographers must keep up with the times, claiming newspapers “want pictures that tell a story.” He wrote, “Good stills result from inspiration and an honest enthusiasm for making distinctive, interesting pictures.” This work required less light and detail and more character and outside action work.
Longworth continued to press for recognition of stills photographer members of Local 659, chairing the group’s first ball in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room on Feb. 24, 1939, which also featured their first photographic exhibition of 400-500 prints. Members of his organizing committee included Clarence Sinclair Bull, George Hurrell, Ernest Bachrach, Eugene Robert Richee, Ray Jones, Gene Kornman, A. L. “Whitey” Schafer, Stax Graves, Madison Stoner Lacy, Roman Freulich, Irving Lippmann, Scotty Welbourne, Elmer Fryer and several others.
The March 18, 1939, Variety noted that Johnston and James Doolittle had joined stills photographers in fighting to get stillmen “a better break in order that he can do a better job of selling his company’s products,” since few photographers received the full cooperation of directors, producers and stars.
Johnston convinced the Academy to host the “First Annual Hollywood Still Photography Exhibit” in 1941, organized by the Publicity Committee on which he sat, per Pierre Norman Sands in his dissertation, “A Historical Study of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1927-1947).” As organized, the exhibit would promote the motion picture industry in general, as well as recognize outstanding work by still cameramen. As International Photographer quoted from the Academy’s press release, “It will be an annual event, created and maintained under strict supervision to bring greater recognition to motion picture still men and to advance the fine art of still photography, in the interests of motion pictures.”
Variety announced on March 19, 1941, that this exhibit would bow April 14 and run for two weeks at the Academy’s library at 1455 N. Gordon St., with specially created gold medals by the Academy to be presented to the winners of eight categories: Best Posed Portrait Study, Best Action Portrait, Posed Portrait (more than one person), Posed Production Still, Action Production Still (exterior), Action still (any type), made with a 4×5 camera, Fashion Still, and Most Original Ideal in Still Picture (novelty class). Competition was limited to prints made during motion picture filming between March 1, 1940, and March 1, 1941. Runners-up would receive certificates of merit.
First award for Best Pin-Up was given to Ray Jones for a photo of Ramsey Ames. From Popular Photography, February 1944.
Most of the judges selected to participate in choosing winners were correspondents, newspaper and photo service executives, and photograph editors of newspapers and magazines such as Life, Look, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, Examiner, Daily News, and Herald- Express, Associated Press Photo Service, International News Photos, and two industry representatives: cinematographer Gregg Toland and technical expert Farciot Edouart. They judged pictures on composition, technical quality, visual quality, and reproduction quality for publication.
More than 3,000 prints representing more than 636 entries by 59 photographers were entered from each of the major studios as well as Hal Roach, Monogram and various United Artists’ productions, with more than 500 photographs presented in exhibition. Prints were mailed across country to the judges for selection. The exhibition was open to the public at a charge of 20 cents per adult and 10 cents per child, with the public strongly encouraged to bring their own cameras and take pictures. During the run, each studio sent stars and employees on a special night dedicated to them.
On April 14, “Studio still photographers, those lads who get kicked all over the set during filming of a picture,” as noted by the Daily News, received what American Cinematographer called “Oscarettes,” medals and certificates presented by actors Carole Landis, Rosalind Russell, Jane Wyman, Anny Gwynne, John Carradine, Ronald Reagan and Academy President, Walter Wanger. The first eight gold medal winners included Emmett Schoenbaum of Twentieth Century-Fox for best posed portrait study, Ray Jones of Universal for best action portrait, Jack Woods of Fox for best posed portrait of two or more, William Walling of Universal for best posed production still, Merritt Sibbald of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for best action production still (exterior), Ed Cronenweth of MGM for best action still (any type), Scotty Welbourne of Warner Bros. for best fashion still, and Jones for best novelty still. On the last night of the show, Ray Jones was awarded a special trophy for most popular picture, voted on by those who attended the exhibit.
While most newspapers and magazines rightly praised the holding of an exhibition and competition of motion picture stills photographers’ work, American Cinematographer reviewed the actual exhibit, critiquing and complimenting the work of the winners. International Photographer also pointed out that too many prints were exhibited in too small a space, with arrangement of the screens causing a traffic jam, and felt that photographers should judge other cameramen’s work
Following the show, the Academy sent the whole exhibit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a month before splitting it into six traveling exhibits to show in more than 200 museums, art schools, camera clubs, universities, galleries and libraries in cities like Chicago, Bay Meadows, Ogden, and Salt Lake City, as well as Australia, Russia and South America.
From Popular Photography, February 1944.
The second Stills Show in 1942 ran only three days, May 6-8, 1942, in the Academy’s library and theater on Gordon Street, this time with free admission to the public. Fourteen medals would be awarded, along with three special prizes: a special citation for the finest scientific contribution to still photography that year, the John LeRoy Johnston trophy for “most popular picture in the show,” and a grand prize for the best of show. Only prints approved by the Production Code Authority would be accepted, after A. L. “Whitey” Schafer created the special print, “Thou Shalt Not” the year before, delineating the 10 items disallowed by the code. This photo was banned from the competition but found itself bootlegged around town by photographers and studios.
Judges for the 1942 contest once again came from the newspaper and magazine world to select winners from the 350 accepted prints. The Academy named a special committee to judge color transparencies and prints, including photographer Fred Archer.
On April 30, 1942, however, the Academy announced that because of wartime metal priorities, they were unable to obtain gold medals, and would instead issue certificates to winners, which could be redeemed for medals after the war. The one gold medal they had in stock would be awarded that year to the best in show winner, which happened to be Charles Scotty Welbourne. Once again, stars such as Joan Leslie, Brenda Marshall, Jane Wyatt and John Wayne presented awards to winning photographers Welbourne, Alex Kahle, Ray Jones, Ernest Bachrach, Virgil Apger, Emmett Schoenbaum, Ed Cronenweth, Eddie Jones, Clarence S. Bull, Whitey Schafer, and Edward Estrabrook, including the trophy for most popular print.
The Academy held its third annual stills show Nov. 26-28, 1943. Because of questions and concerns raised over the years, International Photographer interviewed John Leroy Johnston about the show. Johnston called the citations “in every sense as important as those given at the Annual Academy Award Dinner for technical accomplishment.” He also noted that stillsmen were not happy that editors served as judges and not artists the first two years, so photographers would select their own judges this year, and prints would be judged only after they were hung.
Each studio would appoint men to the Classification Committee, Hanging Committee, and Reception Committee, to make decisions for the show. Once again, the show would be free. “The important thing is to have as many people as possible see the exhibit, including servicemen.” The show also allowed photographers to see what their competitors at other studios were creating.
CBS Columbia Square hosted the 1943 exhibit of 250 prints, 11×14 in size, accompanied by two 8×10 prints. Judges named to select winners included production designer William Cameron Menzies, Fox Case of CBS, and Sidney James of Life magazine. Three servicemen, a soldier, sailor, and Marine, selected the first- and second-place winners in the new category, Best “Pin-Up” Art. Actors Linda Darnell, Jane Wyman, Gregory Peck, Gloria Holden, and Ramsey Ames presented awards, broadcast for the first and only time over CBS radio on Nov. 27, “reaching from Phoenix, Ariz., to Vancouver, B. C.,” to Ray Jones, Ernest Bachrach, Fred Hendrickson, Frank Tanner, Gene Kornman, Alex Kahle, J. C. Milligan, Floyd McCarty, Clarence Bull, Henry Waxman, and Hal McAlpin. Judges awarded a gold plaque to McAlpin for his best-in-show print, and Bull won the John Leroy Johnston trophy as most popular photograph for his print from “Lassie Come Home.” International Photographer considered this exhibit more outstanding than previous years’ shows, with stills showing more “feeling,” warmth, and intimacy.” After the competition and Hollywood exhibition, prints hung at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store, New York and several other American cities.
Because of shortages of photographic supplies during World War II, the shows were suspended until 1947, with the show once again held at CBS Columbia Square Aug. 15-17, 1947. Three newspaper photographic editors judged the show, along with photographer Paul Hesse and cinematographer and photographer, Karl Struss. RKO’s Ernest Bachrach won the best-in-show gold plaque, and gold medals were presented to Don Christy, Roman Freulich, Eddie Jones, Alex Kahle, John Miehle, Whitey Schafer, Ed Estabrook, Lloyd McLean, Oliver Sigurdson, and William Thomas, winners of the 10 classifications. After competition, prints toured the United States, as well as South Africa, the British Isles, and European capitals.
The 1947 show would be the final exhibit and competition for stills photographers’ work. Driving force John Leroy Johnston passed away of a heart attack on April 16, 1946, and without his strong support and guidance, interest in the show withered away.
Recently, two gold medals have appeared at auction, reviving interest in this long-forgotten salute to stills photographers. This alternate form of Academy Award recognized the outstanding work of mostly forgotten men, who crafted iconic images of classic films widely admired and collected today.